What do we know about learning science in informal environments?

By Bronwyn Bevan -January 2021


National Research Council (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments; People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.


This study provides evidence of the importance of learning in informal settings. It provides many rich examples of such approaches. Its chapter on Diversity and Equity (Ch 7) participation provides compelling and concrete accounts of the intersection of culture and learning in out of school settings. The report also contains a set of recommendations where further research and activity is needed.

What Is The Issue?

More than 85% of a person’s life is spent outside of a formal classroom. Even during the K-12 years, when you add up summers, holidays, weekends, and the hours before and after school, school-aged young people spend only about 65% of their time in classrooms. While opportunities for intellectually and emotionally compelling science in school can be pivotal for influencing a person’s relationship to science, what happens outside of the classroom can have equal or even more impact in terms of how it can shape a person’s interest, identity, social networks, vision, understanding and commitment relative to science. What do we know about learning science in informal (not school) environments?

What Was The Study?

In 2006 the National Academy of Science created the Committee on Learning Science In Informal Environments. The committee was charged with examining the evidence about learning science outside of school, identifying qualities unique to informal learning environments as well as those in common with schools, and developing a research agenda. The committee published its influential report, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits in 2009. The report, commonly referred to as "LSIE" in the field, developed 18 conclusions and seven recommendations, found in Chapter 9. The study is available for free download on the National Academy of Science website.


The study takes a broad socio-cultural approach to how it defines learning, including not just the acquisition of knowledge but participation in social communities of peers, families, and communities where science is taken up as a valued tool for engaging with the world.

What Were The Findings?

learning environments support science learning across the age span. Importantly, building off an earlier National Academy of Science (2007) study, Taking Science to School, the committee identified six strands of science learning which they note are intertwined and together support deepening engagement and learning in science. The six strands are:

The committee also found evidence that informal learning environments can be, but are not always, designed and activated in ways that can broaden participation in STEM—can welcome, include, and engage learners who receive strong cultural messages—through media, social networks, and under-resourced schools—that science is “not for them.”

The committee developed 18 conclusions found in Chapter 9. Recommendations included: