Determining the Landscape of Informal Physics Programming in the United States
As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative research, approaches and resources for use in a variety of settings. The subject of physics and all of its sub-disciplines are becoming more prevalent in the public press as the research results appear to be quite interesting and important. While the physics discipline has made a Nation-wide effort to acquaint the public with physics knowledge through informal education learning experiences for years, it has not been as successful as the community desires. Thus, this project is aimed to gather all of the informal and outreach physics education efforts that have been attempted in the hope of finding the best practices for learning physics concepts and practices. A compendium will be published to inform future opportunities on how to educate the public through informal and outreach mechanisms. This project is a collaboration between Michigan State University and the University of Colorado. The physics community has a long history of engaging audiences in informal education activities. Physics institutions that facilitate informal programs include university departments, national laboratories and centers, and professional societies and organizations. There is, however, no systemic understanding of how these programs are facilitated, nor an assessment of the collective impact that these programs have on participants. This project will address numerous research questions in the broad areas of Activity Detail, Structural Aspects, and Assessment. Further, their efforts will determine the "who, what, why, where and how" of informal physics offerings, focusing on their facilitation, impact on participants, and the academic and discipline-specific cultures from which these programs originate. The study has several definite research outcomes that will emerge from this methodology: 1) They will produce a survey of the informal efforts of university physics departments, national physics labs and national physics organizations, 2) They will develop a taxonomy of informal physics programs from which we can characterize the landscape of programs, and 3) by investigating both "successful" as well as "failed" or terminated programs, they will develop an understanding of the culture and resources needed to support outreach from these research findings. In addition, they will produce published works that can be utilized by informal practitioners and administrators in physics to examine current programs and guide the development of new programs. With regards to the research questions and framework, the overarching and driving question for this research project is: "What is the landscape of informal physics learning, specifically, of those programs in the United States facilitated by physicists and physics students at academic institutions, national labs and by national physics organizations?" This study will provide a robust understanding of the state of informal physics programs and outreach by physicists in the United States today. Findings will inform practitioners and administrators as to how best to support and design informal physics programming. The results will also have broad implications for other discipline-specific informal STEM programming. The primary data collection methods will be a nationwide survey and interviews with a large sample of informal practitioners from the physics community. Site visits will be conducted with a subset of these programs in order to observe programs in action and to glean insights from university participants, community partners, public, and K-12 audiences.
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