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NSF-Financed Research to Examine Informal Science Learning

Research is just getting under way on a federally funded project to map out what the range of science learning experiences for youths outside the school day look like, with the goal of laying the groundwork for further national research on the outcomes such programs produce and how to best design them to maximize the benefits.

The two-year project, being undertaken by researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Colorado at Boulder, will involve a mapping study to describe the contexts, characteristics, and practices of a national sample of science-focused out-of-school time programs and identify exemplary programs for further study. In addition, the research will examine the expectations and assumptions that out-of-school-time experts and national policymakers have for informal science education.

The results of the effort, underwritten by a $440,000 grant from the National Science Foundation announced this summer, will be used to help develop a survey instrument to measure important youth outcomes from out-of-school time science programs and collect baseline data for an anticipated longitudinal study, according to an NSF summary of the plan.

"Out-of-school-time programs have long been seen by many to play an important role in energizing young people about science," Robert H. Tai, a professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, said in a press release. "Still there are many questions that remain about how these programs might be best formulated and whether or not these kinds of experiences have the impact we hope they do."

Examples of the kind of extracurricular science programs the research will target include 4-H programs, single-site programs such as Project Exploration in Chicago, and the Youth Exploring Science Program at the St. Louis Science Center, the press release says.

"We are taking a broad-brush approach to the grade levels," Tai said. "Our approach is to examine the influence of out-of-school-time programs across the grade levels, from those that are oriented to elementary-aged children through high school."

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