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Learning science: Taking stock of what happens outside of school

Through new NSF initiative -- Science Learning+ -- US and UK researchers join forces to understand and improve informal science learning

National Science Foundation

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IMAGE: The Wildlife Conservation Society is among the recipients of a Science Learning+ planning grant. WCS's Bridging the Gap program engages teens from underrepresented communities in informal science learning opportunities in... view more

Credit: Julie Larsen Maher, copyright WCS

Where did you have some of your earliest experiences with science? Was it a trip to a planetarium that gave you a new awareness of Earth's place in the universe? An aquarium show that taught you about a vast ecosystem beneath the surface of the ocean? Or maybe a science museum, where the chance to see and touch fossils ignited an interest in dinosaurs?

With young people spending about 80 percent of their time outside of school, there are opportunities to take advantage of learning about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in a wide range of environments. And with technology becoming both more sophisticated and more ubiquitous, the digital world offers immersive experiences, online learning and digital tools to gather and report scientific data.

Against this backdrop, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is partnering with Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the U.K., and the U.K.'s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to advance the field of informal science education through "Science Learning+." The initiative's long-term goals are to broaden participation in STEM and to better understand, strengthen and coordinate STEM engagement and lifelong learning. Three U.S.-based foundations--the Noyce Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation--are participating in supporting this effort.

While most can agree that STEM experiences outside of school can be exciting and engaging for young people, there is much that isn't known about its impact on short-term and long-term learning. How can it best be connected to what students are learning in school? How can young people have equitable opportunities to access quality informal science education? How can an integration of science with art best draw students underrepresented in STEM? What kind of learning can arise from science cafes, Maker fairs and science festivals? How do you measure this kind of learning?

These are the kinds of questions being researched through 11 different Science Learning+ projects, six funded through NSF and five through Wellcome Trust. Each project has a team composed of U.S. and U.K. researchers. The projects are designed to harness the expertise of all partners to support and advance research into how learning happens outside the classroom, exploring the most effective practices and building the evidence base in this area.

"These projects will help us to learn more about the impact of informal STEM learning experiences," said NSF Program Director Dennis Schatz. "They'll also improve our understanding of how informal environments may help to widen access to STEM for young people from all backgrounds."

"The Wellcome Trust has invested in an incredible range of activities to help young people engage with science both in and outside of school settings, from developing new curricula, to pop-ups at Glastonbury," said Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust. "We know that for every waking hour that a young person spends in school, four are spent outside of it, and so we are delighted to be supporting these projects as they endeavor to find out more about the experience and impact of science outside the classroom."

These grants represent the first phase of a two-phase initiative where one-year planning grants of up to $115,000 will enable groups and organizations in the U.K. and/or U.S. to form or enhance partnerships designed to build knowledge about informal science.

In the second phase, NSF and Wellcome Trust intend to fund several significant, longer-term research projects of approximately $2.4 million each for up to five years (possibly more for long-term longitudinal studies). If these two phases are successful, the expectation is to build on this effort and seek additional participation by other collaborators--both governmental agencies and private foundations.

"I'm excited about this partnership with Wellcome Trust and the opportunity to build on the best ideas from two continents," said NSF's Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who leads the Education and Human Resources directorate. "Informal science education activities based on robust research will advance STEM learning for people of all ages."

Details on the Phase I grants follows.

Grants supported by NSF:

A collaboration to develop tools for mapping and assessing the impact of STEM experiences across different ecologies

Lead researcher: Bradley Morris, Kent State University. Collaborators: Great Lakes Science Center, University of Limerick, IdeaStream in U.K., Irish Independent newspaper

This project will develop a prototype assessment tool (based on a mobile technology platform) to map STEM learning experiences across different learning ecologies (e.g. science centers, mass media, home environment). The tool will focus on the impact of the learning ecologies on knowledge, interest, identity and reasoning rather than emphasize learning in a specific content area. The research team will develop and conduct a small-scale usability study during the planning period.

Exploring longitudinal research on out-of-school time experiences in STEM

Lead researcher: Robert Tai, University of Virginia. Collaborators: 4H in the U.S. and U.K.

This project will develop a plan for how to conduct a longitudinal study using existing data sources that can link participation in science-focused programming in out-of-school settings with long-range outcomes. The data for this project will ultimately come from "mining" existing data sets routinely collected by out-of-school programs in both the U.S. and U.K.. 4H is the initial out-of-school provider that will participate in the project, but the project will ideally expand to include other youth-based programs, such as Girls Inc. and YMCA.

Planning a design-based implementation research agenda to investigate digital badges as transformative assessment in informal science learning

Lead researcher: James Diamond, Education Development Center. Collaborators: New York City Hive Learning Network, MOUSE, DigitalMe in U.K.

Young people's participation in informal STEM learning activities can contribute to their academic and career achievements, but these connections are infrequently explicitly recognized or cultivated. More systemic approaches to STEM education could allow for students' experiences of formal and informal STEM learning to be aligned, coordinated, and supported across learning contexts. This project brings together stakeholders in two digital badge systems--one in the U.S. and one in the U.K.--to plan for a study to identify the specific structural features of the systems that may allow for the alignment of learning objectives across institutions. Beyond the kind of physical badges earned in Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, digital badge systems may offer an inventive solution to the challenge of connecting and building on youth's STEM-related experiences in multiple learning contexts.

Investigating the long-term impacts of informal science learning at zoos and aquariums

Lead researcher: Brian Johnson, Wildlife Conservation Society. Collaborators: Zoological Society of London, Stanford University, Lancaster University

Based on the number of visitors annually, zoos and aquariums are among the most popular venues for informal STEM learning in the United States and the United Kingdom. Most research into the impacts of informal STEM learning experiences at zoos and aquariums has focused on short-term changes in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. This project will identify the opportunities for and barriers to researching the long-term impacts of informal STEM learning experiences at zoos and aquariums.

Move2Learn: Engaging preschool scientists through embodiment and technology

Lead researcher: Judy Brown, The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science (Miami, Fla.). Collaborators: University of Edinburgh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

This project will develop a research plan for investigating how applying the principles of embodied cognition to the design of informal learning environments can support young children's (ages 2-6) engagement with, and understanding of, science topics and concepts. While it has been fairly well established that cognition is intertwined with the body's interaction in the physical world, the precise means of applying these ideas to the design of effective learning environments is still emerging. Experimenting with various embodied cognition activities and physical learning configurations to understand what conditions are optimal for informal learning environments for early learners is a major objective of this project.

Affinity spaces for informal science learning: Developing a research agenda

Lead researcher: Richard Hudson, Twin Cities Public Television. Collaborators: Indiana University, University of Bradford

Researchers and practitioners in the U.S. and the U.K., organized by Twin Cities Public Television in collaboration with co-PIs from Indiana University and the University of Bradford in the U.K., will develop a research agenda focused on understanding how participation by youth in various online environments, called "affinity spaces," can promote and enable new approaches to informal STEM learning. Affinity spaces provide opportunities for youth to develop deep interest and engagement in specific topics as well as to interact in groups with others who share common interests. By focusing on affinity spaces, this project will contribute to the collective understanding of how digital media supports STEM learning. Affinity spaces have the ability to connect millions of learners. Developing a research agenda to learn how these spaces can involve youth in experiences across the entire spectrum of STEM disciplines promises to reveal new ways to enhance and enrich the entire ecosystem of informal science learning.

Grants supported by Wellcome Trust:

Youth access and equity in ISL: Developing a research and practice agenda

Lead researcher: Louise Archer, King's College London. Collaborators: University College London, Open University in the U.K., Zoological Society of London, Oregon State University, Michigan State University, STEMNET in the U.K., At-Bristol, American Museum of Natural History, Community Science Workshop Network in the U.S., KQED in the U.S.

This project will develop a Youth Access & Equity Research & Practice Agenda, focusing on addressing equity issues for youth, ages 11-14, primarily from non-dominant backgrounds. The project will involve researchers and practitioners from three informal science learning settings/contexts, (1) Designed spaces, e.g., museums; (2) Community-based, e.g., afterschool clubs; and (3) Everyday science, e.g., science media. The goal of the agenda will be to advance scholarly understanding of equity issues in relation to these three contexts.

Enhancing informal learning through Citizen Science

Lead researcher: Richard Edwards, University of Stirling. Collaborators: Wellcome Wolfson Building, Cornell University

Citizen involvement in science is part of a long history of the role of the amateur in science. Research in the USA and U.K. suggests that citizen science has a powerful potential to support participation in and the learning of science. Increasing research has sought to explore and measure the development of "science literacy," science identity and learning outcomes through citizen science. The scale, focus, and organization of projects has been demonstrated to influence who participates in them, the scientific achievements, and what volunteers learn. This project seeks to build upon and extend the existing work.

The contribution of natural history museums to science education

Lead researcher: Michael Jonathan Reiss, Institute of Education Collaborators: University of Reading, University of Michigan, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, University of Manchester, University of Nottingham, Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, Harvard University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London

Relatively little is known about how Natural History Museums (NHMs) and schools can complement one another to maximize learning among school-age learners. Nor do we fully understand the long-term benefits to learning and engagement with science that NHMs have. In this project, researchers in U.K. and U.S. universities will work with practitioners in NHMs and school teachers in the U.K. and the U.S. to address these questions.

Developing and researching equity-focused across-settings models for STEAM (DREAMS)

Lead researcher: Lynn Scarff, Trinity College Dublin. Collaborators : Exploratorium, University of Washington

This project will develop a research-and-practice project that will explore how an integrated art, STEM, and society (what we refer to as STEAM) approach can expand science engagement and learning of youth aged 15-19, from low-income and non-dominant cultural communities.

Science Live

Lead researcher: John Durant, MIT. Collaborators: Cornell University, University of Cambridge, University of the West of England, Bristol

From intimate science cafes to massive science festivals, the public science events sector encompasses an enormous diversity of activity involving a wide range of practitioners and target audiences. As unique as each instance of an event can be, public science events are all live, in-person programs designed to engage the public with science in a social context. This activity is already taking place on a grand scale in both the U.S. and U.K., and initial evaluations of some of these event forms have begun to demonstrate distinct beneficial impacts. Despite some significant leaps forward, there are several issues that this project seeks to address: insufficient connectivity and communications between many event organizers; little overall tracking of event activity; few comparative evaluations across different event forms; and lack of shared terminology, key facts, and a coherent narrative for the role live events play in the science learning ecosystem.

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About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. The organization provides more than £700 million a year to support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine.

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