Connecting formal and informal science learning through school-community partnerships

By Jean J. Ryoo - May 2015


Bouillion, L. M., & Gomez, L. M. (2001). Connecting school and community with science learning: Real world problems and school-community partnerships as contextual scaffolds. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(8), 878–898. doi:10.1002/tea.1037

This article addresses the question of how to engage culturally and linguistically diverse students in rigorous science learning by connecting classroom science with the everyday ways students experience science outside of school. In order to support formal education in incorporating students’ informal science “funds of knowledge” while helping learners see how school and life learning are related, the authors call for a “connected science” that unites classroom science with community science through “mutual benefit partnerships.” These partnerships have four design principles. They should:

  1. Address a current unsolved but consequential community problem
  2. Build partnerships between the school and its community and local businesses
  3. Use inquiry methods of problem-based learning
  4. Result in student-developed products that benefit all partners

Research Design 

This article describes the Chicago River Project, a mutual benefit partnership that took place at a public elementary school serving predominately Mexican-American children. In this project, students identified the pollution of a local riverbank as a serious problem they wanted to fix. Based on this problem, teachers developed curricular goals around the question “What systems are we in and how do we affect these systems?” For example, the goals for science learning were to learn about soil erosion, water quality, and related topics. Social studies learning involved the history of the river. Language arts activities included letter writing and journaling, while mathematics goals had to do with data analysis and representation.

School teachers and students formed alliances with Friends of the Chicago River, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, artists, and Cap Sauers Holdings Nature Preserve to learn about conservancy strategies, political lobbying, water testing, and community beautification. The project also tapped parents’ knowledge about the earth, brought from rural Mexico.

The authors analyzed audiotapes, observation field notes, student work and instructional artifacts, and interviews to determine what kinds of activities students engaged in, what they learned, what kinds of knowledge and experiences were connected across formal and informal learning settings, and how the mutual benefit partnership design helped make those connections.

Research Findings 

Through the Chicago River Project, students learned key science concepts related to water conservation, recycling, soil erosion, and water quality. Teachers noted that students gained skills in accessing information, developing questions, analyzing data, and sharing ideas. Students also got more interested in learning science as they prepared plans to restore the polluted riverbank and create a safe green space. They felt empowered and believed that they could use science to make a difference in the community.

This research reveals important design principles for developing mutual benefit partnerships that support problem-based learning across formal and informal settings.

Addressing these four features allows for expanded understandings of what counts as science, how science can be a source of agency for addressing real community issues, and how science knowledge from informal settings can link to the school experiences of linguistically and culturally diverse students.

Implications for Practice

This paper’s principles provide a valuable framework for designing mutual benefit partnerships that support learning across informal and formal science education contexts. Informal science educators may gain insight into how to develop collaborations with school educators and community members in order to support culturally and linguistically diverse youth in developing science skills and identities. Inquiry-based projects on issues important to youth and the community—projects that connect school and out-of-school spaces—can support meaningful science learning that directly affects local worlds.

Related Briefs:

  • Bevan, B. (2011). Multiple routes for the development and pursuit of interests: An ISE research brief discussing Barron, "Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective."
  • Wingert, K. (2014). Designing programs that value traditional ecological knowledge: An ISE research brief discussing Hamlin, “‘Yo soy indígena’: Identifying and using traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to make the teaching of science culturally responsive for Maya girls.”