Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Informal Science Education

Last week I was in New York at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) for the Design Make Play conference, which was a conference of Informal Science Educators and facilitators.  As I mentioned before, this was a new field for me (informal science education), so I wanted to share a little about the field in general with you.  Informal Science education is meant to be any of the learning that takes place outside of a formalized school format, from the Boys and Girls Club to playing with Legos.  This was vaguely like what I had heard of called "Outreach" before- giving students positive experiences with science to encourage them to pursue that as a career path.  But Informal Science Education is much more-so a field driven by educators, and has less of a specific purpose.  Many folks from museums and science centers were there, as well as small organizations that do fun hands-on activities with children and adults.

The keynote speakers addressed the fact that kids spend most of their time not in school, and that this is time that they are still learning.  They talked about the "leaky" STEM pipeline, only 2.4% of the adult population has a STEM career- but really is that bad?  One of the themes of the meeting was not just that we need more trained scientists, but that what America needs is more innovators, people who can think scientifically and understand how to solve problems, work collaboratively and aren't initimidated by technical problems.  Science isn't the only place that requires those skills, but it does provide decent training for these ideas.  The conference organizers were aligned with the Maker Movement- you know, the people hanging out at Maker Spaces, Maker Fairs, Hackerspaces and their own little tinker shops who are finding ways to build things like robots out of vacuums, or paints out of household items. 

You can picture how this would not only cultivate the skills of innovation, but give a young student confidence and perhaps help a student who is not gifted in the traditional sense realize that they are quite bright afterall.  It's very feel good stuff.  It also parallels the idea that if we need a more science literate society (say, one who will oppose cuts to NIH budgets and stuff), in order to have an informed citizenry who can address the complex and technical problems our country and and world are facing.

In the informal arena, the measures of success are quite different, and I noticed this immediately in the culture of the people at the conference.  Many people took photos of presentations.  I never figured out who the Big-Wigs were, since everyone was sharing with everyone.  And being a conference about learning by exploration, everyone was very willing to jump in feet first to all kinds of crazy things and really share their enthusiasm.  Yes, this arena is generally grant funded, and as I said, dominated by educators.  But, when I mentioned that I was a scientist, people would flip!  They LOVED that a scientist wanted to get involved in this stuff, and were really supportive despite the fact that all the education/assessment/etc. stuff was new to me.  In my dream world, I'll have a solid job as a professional science somebody, and then get to work with groups like this to help them in their efforts to promote play a a tool for education.

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