In a new issue brief, the National Governors Association identifies science learning outside the classroomoften called "informal science education"as a frequently overlooked vehicle for helping states advance their STEM goals.
The document urges governors to "explicitly" include informal science education on their action agenda to improve STEM learning among young people and have representatives from informal science institutions (such as museums and zoos) be a part of state STEM advisory councils.
"Informal science education extends student learning beyond the classroom through hands-on activities that let youth discover and practice STEM concepts," the NGA brief says.
Opportunities for such "informal" learning come through a variety of venues and activities, such as science centers and museums, zoos, robotics and rocketry clubs, online games, and science competitions, to name a few.
The NGA brief identifies some additional actions for states, including:
• Continue to support quality informal science programs in the state, such as those offered by museums and science centers;
• Encourage school districts to support more project-based STEM learning in after-school environments; and
• Encourage the governor's STEM council or state education agency to oversee the creation of an online catalog of informal science activities offered throughout the state and a compendium of program evaluations.
Last year, EdWeek published a special report, Science Learning Outside the Classroom, in which we examined what informal science education looks like in practice, what we know about its impact, its potential, and the challenges it faces to have a broader reach. We found that the field is gaining broader recognition for its role in helping young people acquire scientific knowledge and skills. (One of the most notable examples is a major report from the National Research Council issued in 2009, which noted that "beyond the schoolhouse door, opportunities for science learning abound.")
(Our report on informal science education was supported in part by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, which also underwrote the new NGA brief.)
The NGA issue brief suggests that "informal science offers states a powerful, low-cost way to help achieve the goals of an overall STEM strategy." It notes that most quality programs "involve little if any direct state funding and do not compete with other state education dollars or classroom time." (That said, many advocates for informal science education argue that additional funding is critical to help expand the influence and reach of their work. After all, somebody has to pay the bills for these programs and institutions.)
The brief argues that a key challenge is that many states fail to recognize and promote the role informal science learning activities can play in "buttressing" other state activities in STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
"Thus, the state may be adopting more rigorous math and science standards, and providing more rigorous preparation for STEM students, while not taking full advantage of after-school programs or teacher professional-development opportunities provided through informal science institutions," the report says. "As a result, school districts engage with the informal science community in a patchwork fashion, with robust activities in some areas and none in others."