It Takes an Ecosystem: The Role of Informal Spaces in Early STEM Learning

Blog Post
June 29, 2016

I still vividly remember my first museum sleepover. In college, I volunteered with the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, specifically for their Science Snoozeum sleepovers. For my inaugural experience, I’d been assigned to a group of eager and curious first graders. They decided, before even arriving, our first stop would be the Whispering Gallery -- an acoustics exhibit that amplifies sounds.  When I asked why, several students responded simply, “We’ve got lots of questions that need answers.” We stayed there for over an hour. Once they confirmed you could, in fact, hear a whisper perfectly from across the long room, we played a game where they conducted a series of tests to answer their questions. How would different volumes of whispers sound? How would your voice change in other parts of the room? Was there a perfect spot with the best sound? What happens when you cover one ear?

Whether we realized it or not, our game reinforced STEM concepts. Hands-on and inquiry-based activities like the ones we engaged in that evening have become the centerpiece of STEM learning in and out of classrooms. This approach also has support from President Obama, whose administration launched the Nation of Makers Movement, among other initiatives. The movement’s main event, the National Week of Making, wrapped up last week and this year focused on promoting new technologies and do-it-yourself (DIY) experiences -- often found in library and museum “makerspaces” -- as vehicles for sparking interest in STEM careers and teaching STEM skills.  Makerspaces represent a hopeful departure from more passive, memorization-heavy traditional science teaching methods. In these settings, children actively cultivate foundational STEM skills by engaging with tools like 3D printers, brainstorming with each other, and prototyping solutions to problems. As poor assessment results and STEM teacher shortages prompt an urgent call for improving STEM education, integrating hands-on informal learning experiences with the formal school-day is emerging as a pathway for boosting achievement.

Recently, The Nation’s Report Card -- an ongoing assessment that measures subject proficiency across nationally representative samples of students -- tested eighth graders on technology and engineering literacy for the first time. This new assessment focuses on testing students’ ability to understand and use technology in meaningful ways, like for problem solving and communication. It also surveyed students about their experiences with technology and engineering outside of school to provide context for how students are learning about these concepts. Results indicate that students who reported more frequent experiences outside of school scored higher than students who had little to no experiences in informal learning settings -- suggesting that, in this sample size, there is a possible positive correlation between informal STEM learning and proficiency on this assessment.

Thus, informal STEM experiences, like those had in makerspaces, could provide students the necessary support for enhancing their understanding of these subjects. Coupled with research supporting promotion of STEM in the early years, efforts are beginning to coalesce around a possible solution where STEM starts early and isn’t always confined to the traditional classroom.

But what does “informal” STEM in the early years really mean and which settings count? According to the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), informal science education is, “lifelong learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that takes place across a multitude of designed settings and experiences outside of the formal classroom.” These settings include, “film and broadcast media, science centers and museums, zoos and aquariums, botanical gardens and nature centers; cyberlearning and gaming; public science events; youth, community, and out-of-school time programs; and a growing variety of learning environments.”

Regarding the potential of informal environments, the Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center, emphasizes how, on average, individuals spend a majority of their waking hours outside of formal learning environments. In the vein of informal opportunities for young learners, their visualization below provides a striking illustration of the abundant time young children could spend learning and reinforcing concepts outside of their classrooms. This time could be spent experimenting in exhibits, like the Whispering Gallery, tinkering in makerspaces, tending to urban gardens, or designing structures with household items. All activities that provide hands-on opportunities for children to learn about the world around them.

Lifelong and Lifewide Learning

Source: Office of Educational Technology

With a bit of intentionality and meaningful school-day coordination, informal environments could become a crucial element in the STEM learning ecosystem comprised of the classroom, the community, and the home. In nature, ecosystems develop as nutrient links and energy flows form between organisms and their environment in order to support life. In learning, particularly for STEM, a rich network of experiences could provide the context necessary for building 21st century skills and raising a nation of makers and innovators.

These ideas also emerged in discussions earlier this month at an event hosted by New America and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. For reflections on the event, check out part one and part two of our event summary series.