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AAAS Forum Explores the Evolution and Future of Informal Science Programs
George D. "Pinky" Nelson is a veteran of three space flights and now the director of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education at Western Washington University, and he has both professional and first-hand knowledge about the importance of "informal science" to American education. He traces his own interest in astronomy to the programs and exhibits he saw as a child at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Nelson spoke to 125 principal investigators of 62 informal science programs currently funded by the National Science Foundation who met recently at AAAS in Washington, D.C. They shared their experiences in managing after-school, weekend, and summer programs that focus on science, math, engineering, and/or technology for youngsters and, in some cases, their parents and other adults.
"I can't emphasize enough how important what you do is," Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, told the audience. "Science is a central part of society. And that requires the science enterprise to relate in an intimate way with the public."
Nelson agreed. "The principal investigators are great," he said, "and what they're doing is critically important not just to their audiences but to the country and world."
Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, suggested that the gathering, held 15-17 October, might mark a formal change in the role of informal science and in the role of people who develop and administer such programs.
"In the past, these outreach programs were created to bring underrepresented groups to science, and focused on helping or serving the public instead of engaging the community," Malcom said. "This is a calling to organize something more structured-to build capacity in the community."
Informal science education programs are committed to making a difference in the way science is taught and learned. These outreach activities promote public engagement through interactive programs at science centers and museums and in partnership with schools, government and organizations.
The programs target public audiences for self-directed learning in science, technology, engineering and math, offering permanent and traveling exhibitions, films, web-based projects, citizen science programs, and youth and community programs. Often these nontraditional programs are offered outside of the school setting, such as a science-technology center, museum or community science center.
"Museums and science centers have two roles one as a destination where kids and adults can explore possibilities and as a school annex to help schools and teachers and students as a supplement," said Nelson, the former director of AAAS's Project 2061, which has been instrumental in setting out benchmarks for what all U.S. students should know about science, mathematics and technology by the time they graduate from high school.
"If one kid gets hooked on math or science or achieving, then that may be one more kid that stays out of prison. In California, it costs $320,000 to house a kid in prison for 10 years," said Nelson. "These programs have a huge impact on people and provide support and information about the opportunities available to them." At Western Washington University, Nelson is working on the effective preparation of future science teachers and science education reform.
The Informal Science Education (ISE) program at NSF invests in projects that develop and implement informal learning experiences for individuals of all ages and backgrounds that are designed to increase their interest, engagement and understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as projects that advance the theory and practice of informal science education. Projects may target either public audiences or professionals whose work directly affects informal STEM learning. ISE projects are expected to demonstrate strategic impact, collaboration, and innovation.
David Ucko, head of the Science Literacy Section at NSF and a AAAS Fellow, challenged PIs to think about the big picture. He asked them to consider how their individual programs might cross-pollinate and serve as the basis for the next generation of ISE programs.
"AAAS has been involved in informal programs that further STEM activities for children and adults for over 30 years," said Judy Kass, senior program director of education and human resources at AAAS. "We were pleased to host this very important meeting and feel that it will be a beginning of new collaborations and research in the field."
12 November 2004