What is Informal STEM Learning?

Informal STEM learning 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.

People of all ages learn science in an increasingly wide variety of ways. Formal schooling is only one part of a larger ecosystem of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning that also occurs throughout one’s lifetime. When we talk about the field of informal science, or STEM, education, we are referring to experiences and settings that are being designed, implemented and assessed by a community of dedicated, trained practitioners. This can 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. Informal STEM education is informed and supported by a knowledge base of evidence from evaluation studies, learning research, and wisdom from practice. The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) supports ISE by providing web infrastructure and resources for those working in and with the field.

What is InformalScience.org?

InformalScience.org is a central portal to project, research and evaluation resources designed to support and connect the informal STEM education community in museums, media, public programs and a growing variety of learning environments. The website is operated by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), an NSF-funded resource center for the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program.

InformalScience.org contains the following types of resources:

  1. Projects are funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as other public and private funders. Projects in the collection are diverse, but can broadly be defined as engaging public audiences in informal STEM learning.
  2. Research and reference materials included peer-reviewed educational research, conference proceedings, research briefs, presentations, reports, thesis and dissertation work, and other works that explore the impacts, contexts, and lessons learned from informal STEM learning experiences and settings.
  3. Evaluation reports share project impacts and evaluation findings. These include submissions from professional evaluators conducting front-end, formative, summative, and other evaluation studies.  Projects are invited to publicly share their evaluation reports via InformalScience.org to share results and help others build upon their experiences.

Key ISE Resources, Events and Scholarship from 2017, 2018 and 2019

Since 2017 CAISE has compiled an annual Year in Informal STEM Education report in the form of a slide deck that includes information and resources that were nominated and/or contributed by leaders across the field in Citizen Science and Public Participation In Scientific Research, Cyberlearning and Gaming, Living Collections, Making and Tinkering, Media, Public Libraries, Public Science Events, Science Centers and Museums, ​Science Communication,Youth and Afterschool and other notable publications and moments. 


Key Resources for Getting Started with ISE

Learning Science in Informal Environments: Places, People, and Pursuits: In January 2009, the U.S. National Research Council released this consensus report about informal science education, which is still considered to be one of the most important pieces of literature in the field.  Philip Bell, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and Associate Professor of Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, stated that "Learning is broader than schooling, and informal science environments and experiences play a crucial role. These experiences can kick-start and sustain long-term interests that involve sophisticated learning."

Everyday Science Learning and Equity: Mapping the Contested Terrain: This 2017 article argues that while research on science learning outside of school has a relatively long history, for historical and practical reasons the field has privileged studying learning in museums and science centers and afterschool programs. More recently researchers have begun investigating science learning in such spaces as the home, collective hobby practice, medical visits, DIY venues, neighborhood associations and community organizing in ways that honor the diversity of the participants and may give rise to new understandings and discourses of equity.

Identifying and Supporting Productive STEM Programs in Out-of-School Settings:In 2015, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released this consensus report that identified three criteria of program that produce positive outcomes for learners. The study found that effective STEM out-of-school programs: 1. engage young people in intellectually, academically, socially and emotionally 2. provide firsthand experiences phenomena and materials and 3. engage young people in sustained STEM practices  

The 95 Percent Solution: School is Not Where Most Americans Learn Most of Their Science: This 2010 article makes a compelling case for lifelong informal STEM learning experiences by explaining that approximately 5% of an individual’s life is spent in formal classroom settings.  Informal learning experiences therefore play a crucial role in fostering a scientifically literate citizenry.  The article presents evidence for the impact of out-of-school STEM learning experiences on public understanding of science.