Bridging formal and informal learning environments to improve science education for all

By Jean J. Ryoo - July 2015


Stocklmayer, S. M., Rennie, L. J., & Gilbert, J. K. (2010). The roles of the formal and informal sectors in the provision of effective science education. Studies in Science Education, 46(1): 1–44. doi:10.1080/03057260903562284

Science education today is expected not only to prepare youth for careers in science and technology but also to foster scientific literacy that supports responsible choices and civic participation in issues related to health, diet, use of energy resources, and so on. Stocklmayer and colleagues outline challenges in achieving these goals, including the need to update curricula with inquiry-based approaches that engage historically underrepresented students by linking formal and informal science learning.

The authors Stocklmayer, Rennie, and Gilbert describe current efforts in formal science education reform, such as the design of curricula that share transdisciplinary contexts. This paper addresses reform related to the “nature of science,” reflecting on how sociocultural issues affect science and how diverse belief systems influence scientific knowledge and practices.

However, to make science education reform sustainable while reaching the widest range of students, the authors argue, in-school education must connect to out-of-school learning as experienced in museums, community organizations’ afterschool programs, and print or electronic media. They call for developing a hybrid “third space” where the successes of informal education can be applied to school science in collaborations that increase the relevance of formal education and professional development. The resulting forms of learning would be inquiry-based and cross-disciplinary.

More specifically, the authors describe how informal education encourages science learning through four kinds of factors.

  1. Affective factors: providing choice to foster ownership of learning, motivating internal drive, and encouraging delight and awe while entertaining youth
  2. Factors relating to learning science: offering holistic and everyday life contexts for science learning, building on students’ prior knowledge and experiences, emphasizing personal narrative and meaning making, and presenting science as a “story” that is jargon-free and active
  3. Factors relating to learning about science: facilitating social and community border crossing between groups that do not traditionally engage with one another, while presenting science as a messy and human endeavor that addresses real-world problems
  4. Factors related to doing science: facilitating interactive learning using real contexts, real data, and real projects with professional scientists

An example of how to build informal science education successes into a proposed “third space” is a syllabus module designed to teach 13–14-year-olds in the Australian state of Tasmania about buoyancy. The module was cross-disciplinary while drawing on real-life issues related to local boat building and environmental factors affecting coastal marine life.

This formal education project built on the four informal science education factors in many ways. For example, it built on students’ prior knowledge from their diving experiences, supported social and community border crossing through direct contact with a boat designer and a marine biologist, and used museum assistance to make the students’ research engaging.

Stocklmayer and colleagues note that informal science learning factors can be applied to formal settings only if formal educators acknowledge that they need help and if informal educators simultaneously receive appropriate training to work in schools. The authors argue that resources need to be made available to facilitate communication and collaboration between formal and informal sectors. Such dialogue should include students, parents, and community members.

Implications for Practice

This article provides informal science educators and program designers with a strong framework for describing the positive effects their work can have on science learning, both in and out of school. The research offers valuable insight into features of informal science education that teachers and program designers can draw upon to enrich school science.

Furthermore, people interested in creating collaborations between informal and formal science learning environments can build on this article’s four factors of informal science education. These factors can be useful in connecting learning across formal and informal contexts in order to improve science education for diverse youth.

Related Briefs:

  • Bevan, B. (2011). Mathematics as a cross-setting phenomenon: An ISE research brief discussing Jackson, "Approaching participation in school-based mathematics as a cross-setting phenomenon."
  • Bevan, B., Dillon, J., Hein, G. E., Macdonald, M., Michalchik, V., Miller, D., …, & Yoon, S. (2010). Making science matter: Collaborations between informal science education organizations and schools.
  • King, H. (2014). Relating culture to prior knowledge: An ISE research brief discussing Bricker, Reeve, & Bell, “’She has to drink blood of the snake’: Culture and prior knowledge in science/health education.”
  • Matson, C. (2013). Guiding educators to implement culturally relevant science: An ISE research brief discussing Johnson, “The road to culturally relevant science: Exploring how teachers navigate change in pedagogy.”
  • Ryoo, J. J. (2014). Understanding how learners succeed and struggle across time, space, and social groups: An ISE research brief discussing Bell et al., “Learning in diversities of structures of social practice: Accounting for how, why and where people learn science.”