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The Lure Of Informal Education

Science learning takes many forms outside the classroom and may spark long-term interest

by Rachel Petkewich
November 24, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 47

Science In Play
Credit: Exploratorium
Visitors to science centers and museums such as the Exploratorium get a chance to try hands-on activities.
Credit: Exploratorium
Visitors to science centers and museums such as the Exploratorium get a chance to try hands-on activities.

THE WONDERS OF SCIENCE can inspire curiosity anywhere. Think cruise ships, museums, theater stages, and the Internet. Activities at these and other nonschool environments can engage the uninterested—the children and adults who think that science has nothing to do with them or that they could never understand it, let alone become scientists.

Informal opportunities to get people excited about science are more important than ever, according to science educators. Public K–12 classroom-based science education continues to be hampered by lack of funding and mandates to "teach to the test," a practice that runs the risk of turning students off to science. Informal programs can supplement formal education by stimulating curiosity and making science relevant and accessible. Moreover, enthusiasm for science can help create scientifically literate citizens and may motivate students to become the scientists and engineers who will tackle society's future challenges.

Informal science education is on the rise, as evidenced by the increased numbers of after-school programs and science center activities, as well as TV and radio programming. Whether these programs directly inspire scientific careers is hard to evaluate, but funding is available for scientists and educators to get involved.

Informal learning can be defined as voluntary, self-directed learning and is really the basis for lifelong learning, says David A. Ucko, deputy director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Research on Learning in Formal & Informal Settings.

Educators can say for sure that scientists working at all levels are key role models who can reinforce to the public that science happens outside of school and matters to everyday life. Chemists have devised creative ways to participate in informal learning, ranging from doing demonstrations for the American Chemical Society's annual National Chemistry Week (C&EN, Dec. 17, 2007, page 36) to creating weekend workshops, performing chemistry-based theater, and installing science exhibits.

One of these chemists is Ilan Chabay, who holds a doctorate in chemical physics. He was so bothered by the lack of scientists' participation during the 1980s boom of new science centers that he left his laser research job at the National Institute of Standards & Technology, in Gaithersburg, Md., to start a science exhibit company. Over two decades, he built more than 200 science-based, hands-on learning experiences for science centers and other informal settings, including fast-food restaurants, doctor's offices, and theme parks, in 16 countries.

"People spend a remarkable amount of time, compared to even sports events, in informal learning environments, such as science museums, all over the world," says Chabay, who is currently a professor in public learning and understanding of science at Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg, both in Sweden.

"Informal opportunities to get people excited about science are more important than ever."

FOR EXAMPLE, Chi-Ting Huang's two daughters, ages five and eight, say they would rather go with her when she volunteers at the Museum of Science, in Boston, than to their own Saturday soccer games.

During the week, Huang researches fusion protein molecules that influence bone, muscle, and blood vessel growth at Acceleron Pharma, in Cambridge, Mass. The Ph.D. biochemist says that volunteering at the museum on the weekends serves two purposes: She can transfer her passion for science to the public and help herself learn about much broader areas of science—from human physiology to archaeology—than her narrowly focused research allows.

Huang regularly helps museum visitors explore exhibits. Last year, she also developed and taught a special two-hour weekend session for girls on cosmetic chemistry at the museum. For those who think makeup is frivolous, the class's various hands-on activities helped the participants see how much chemistry actually goes in the products, Huang says.

To examine the components of lipstick, the participants used paper chromatography. Then they made their own lip gloss. Huang says that helping them understand the purpose of each ingredient in their formulation is more valuable than simply mixing them together. She received so much positive feedback from the girls and their parents that she plans to do the session again.

Like Huang, science exhibit professionals know that putting science into a real-life context is much more appealing to museum visitors than simply spouting details about a scientific discipline. For example, why do bubbles expand over a bed of dry ice? Seeing the bubbles grabs—and holds—visitors' attention much better than just presenting facts about Le Chatelier's principle, semipermeable membranes, and density, says Julie Yu, a staff scientist at the Exploratorium, San Francisco's hands-on museum of science, art, and human perception. Yu is referring to an exhibit there called Bubble Suspension, where visitors can blow soap bubbles into a tank containing dry ice.

"The bubble initially hovers because the air the visitor breathes into the bubble is less dense than carbon dioxide," Yu says. As the carbon dioxide from the dry ice diffuses into the bubble, the bubble expands. When the bubble's density surpasses that of its surroundings, the bubble sinks to the bottom of the tank.

A former middle school science teacher, Yu recently completed a doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. She started at the Exploratorium as a Discovery Corps Fellow, a nontraditional postdoctoral program run by NSF's Division of Chemistry. Last year, the Exploratorium hired her to fill a void in chemistry expertise in its Teacher Institute, where teachers can learn how to use hands-on exhibits in their classes.

Yu and Charles Carlson agree that chemistry regularly turns out to be more challenging to portray in a display than biology, physics, or an interdisciplinary topic such as forensic science. Carlson has been building chemistry and biology exhibits at the Exploratorium since 1972.

Science centers and museums have a tough time maintaining interactive chemistry displays for two reasons, according to Carlson: stigma and limited reagents. Many people who didn't like high school chemistry shy away from an exhibit bearing the word "chemistry," he says. And science centers often resort to chemistry demonstrations on a stage at a particular time rather than stand-alone, hands-on exhibits to limit costs incurred from using reagents and managing waste disposal, he adds.

TO COVER the expenses of creating and operating informal science programs, museum groups, educators, and scientists usually have to obtain grants. NSF, through its Informal Science Education (ISE) program, awards the majority of funding for these programs in the U.S., including most projects mentioned in this article. In addition, philanthropic organizations such as the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation support chemistry-focused projects.

Some endeavors, such as Marvelous Molecules, have received funding from both organizations. Established in the late 1990s, this large, permanent, hands-on exhibit is devoted to "exploring the shared chemistry of living things" and is still on display at the New York Hall of Science, in Corona. More recently, NSF and the Dreyfus Foundation contributed money for "Forgotten Genius," the award-winning PBS documentary about chemist Percy L. Julian (C&EN, Nov. 26, 2007, page 52).

NSF's support of informal science education dates back to 1959, when an ISE precursor program called Public Understanding of Science began, says Ucko, a Ph.D. chemist who taught at primarily undergraduate institutions and directed two science centers before arriving at NSF. He adds that ISE is the primary NSF program that supports expanding the scientific literacy of the general public. The budget for informal science has grown from several million dollars in the early 1980s to $64 million in fiscal 2008.

Proposal reviewers at NSF look for innovative projects that, in addition to helping people learn about different aspects of science and technology, advance the state of the art across the field of informal education, Ucko says. "Because we are very interested in learning from and building on prior work," he adds, ISE now requires all grantees to post project evaluations on

Setting up informal science education projects is like doing scientific research, in terms of learning from previous work and forming collaborations, Ucko says. That is because projects often involve partnerships between scientists and informal educators who have expertise working with the general public. He strongly urges scientists considering how to develop an informal science project to team up with people who know the target audience and how to translate scientific concepts in a way that will engage that audience.

For example, scientists collaborated with the Materials Research Society and exhibit pros at the Ontario Science Centre, in Toronto, to create Strange Matter, a series of hands-on experiences intended to introduce the public to the beauty and science behind materials. The exhibit will travel around North America through 2010.

Ink Analysis
Credit: Courtesy of Sheryl Tucker
A Junior Girl Scout shows off her chromatography skills as she solves "The Case of the Unsigned Letter."
Credit: Courtesy of Sheryl Tucker
A Junior Girl Scout shows off her chromatography skills as she solves "The Case of the Unsigned Letter."

ANOTHER RESOURCE for collaboration is the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network. Known as NISE Net, it enables scientists who wish to explain nanotechnology to the public to get help from museum professionals. It includes more than 100 partner groups. The lead institutions are the Museum of Science, the Exploratorium, and the Science Museum of Minnesota, in St. Paul.

Participants in NISE Net have created exhibits and demonstrations, as well as Web, print, and broadcast pieces for media outlets. Ucko notes that these kinds of integrated projects are a trend in informal science education grant applications.

NISE Net is the recipient of NSF's largest single award to a museum group, a $20 million, five-year grant that started in 2005.

The pool of money is a lot smaller at the Dreyfus Foundation. The foundation provides informal science funding through its Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences.

This "seed program is essentially an open call to the chemistry community to propose novel ways to advance the field of chemistry," says Adam J. Lore, operations manager for the foundation.

Funding for the foundation's special grant program now exceeds $1 million annually. Lore adds that the Dreyfus Foundation has given more emphasis to informal education over the past five years because of positive results. For example, he says, chemistry is the second most popular topic on Science Buddies, a resource website for student science projects. The Kenneth Lafferty Hess Family Charitable Foundation of San Francisco started the site in 2001 to promote hands-on science and received a Dreyfus Foundation grant in 2006. In 2005, the site had 850,000 hits, and projections for 2008 exceed 8 million, Lore adds.

Among the 2008 recipients of Dreyfus grants, one group will help produce a television program to air on PBS in 2010 about science and art, including forensic chemistry to identify fraudulent works and restorative chemistry to fix paintings damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Another grant will fund "Science Studio," a weekly radio program in development at the University of Texas, El Paso, which will include interviews of notable chemists.

Methods that informally bring bits of science to the masses—such as radio and TV programs, as well as Web-based media, including podcasts and YouTube videos—are gaining popularity, especially with younger audiences. For example, podcasts about chemistry that are aimed at the general public and created by professional chemistry societies and publishing groups are downloaded thousands of times, which is a lot in the podcasting world (C&EN, Oct. 20, page 61).

Scientists see great benefit in podcasts and YouTube postings for a general audience. Chemist Martyn Poliakoff of the University of Nottingham, in England, for example, told C&EN that the YouTube videos he made with colleagues about the elements enable him to reach audiences that outnumber all of the students he has lectured to in his career (C&EN, Sept. 15, page 42).

But do the people who watch those video clips actually get any educational benefit?

Education experts say the wide audience for Web-based resources makes assessment difficult. Chabay and Ucko agree that a high number of downloads for the Web-based media clearly indicates interest. However, they add, informal science educators should strive for more detailed evaluation methods to see whether a project is worth repeating and what educators can learn from it. Guidelines are available from the NSF-sponsored Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education at

In part because informal science learning operates across so many venues, the National Research Council's Board on Science Education convened a panel of multidisciplinary experts for a nearly three-year-long study to examine the scope and effects of informal science. Their report is expected by the end of this year.


Some venues do rigorous evaluation. At the Exploratorium, for example, staff researchers observe visitors as they manipulate exhibits, ask them questions, and then use that data in designing future exhibits.

Surveys are another tool to monitor the audience's engagement. Sheryl A. Tucker, a chemistry professor at the University of Missouri, has used surveys to continually improve a Saturday workshop she started in 1998. The idea for the workshop came when she noticed that Boy Scouts had a merit badge for chemistry but Girl Scouts did not. She teamed up with the nearby Girl Scouts-Heart of Missouri Council to develop a program that has linked chemists with more than 2,500 girls over the past decade.

Twice a year, 200 Junior Girl Scouts (ages 10 to 12) earn their badges by participating in one of two six-hour weekend workshops called the Magic of Chemistry. One workshop is timed to coincide with National Chemistry Week; the other is scheduled during National Girl Scout Week. They are based on one of three storylines, which rotate annually among "The Case of the Unsigned Letter," which involves forensics; "Fun with Polymers"; and "Chemistry of Color."

Tucker says these narratives, along with hands-on activities, trained volunteers, and professional scientists, help the girls see chemistry's relevance to daily life. She knows this because at the end of the workshops participants answer questionnaires about what they learned and how the experience influenced their interest in science.

After examining 10 years of data, Tucker and her colleagues draw a few conclusions (Science 2008, 319, 1621). They note that the girls had great enthusiasm about learning more science but add that tracking girls as they get older is hard. "These results cannot tell us whether girls who participate in Magic of Chemistry maintain an interest in science," they write, although anecdotal evidence, such as the large number of girls who sign up again or volunteer to help when they are old enough, is promising.

Science Theater
Credit: Courtesy of Holly Walter Kerby
With audience participation, Babiarz (left) and Kerby perform the "Dance of the Water Molecule."
Credit: Courtesy of Holly Walter Kerby
With audience participation, Babiarz (left) and Kerby perform the "Dance of the Water Molecule."

TO EVALUATE in real time, the people who run Fusion Science Theater incorporate audience surveys right into their performance. The program draws from the playwright's bag of tricks—theme, character, and dramatic question—to emphasize discovery and downplay the "whiz-bang" aspect common to many staged chemistry demonstrations, the creators say. Before, during, and after the show, the children and parents in the audience answer questions. Their responses help the developers know what the audience has learned and modify future performances accordingly.

The program's creators are Holly Walter Kerby, an instructor in chemistry, creative writing, and drama at Madison Area Technical College, in Wisconsin; Christopher Babiarz, an environmental chemist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and their colleagues in association with the Madison Children's Museum and the local Mercury Players Theatre.

Two years ago, the group completed its first show, "The Amazing Chemical Circus." It features a ringmaster hosting three acts that explore the chemistry of combustion, color, and polymers. Last year, the group created a shorter, mobile show called "The Boiling Point." In 30 minutes, a chemical educator and an actor use chemical demonstrations and theater techniques, including audience participation, for a segment called "The Dance of the Water Molecule," to teach the concept of vaporization.

Both shows receive positive comments from children and parents, and the final surveys show that they learn about chemistry too.

Kerby and her colleagues are presently working on scripts, resources, and workshops to train members of Students Participating in Chemical Education (SPICE) from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She says the students in SPICE plan to perform "The Boiling Point" at venues including area schools, libraries, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Chabay hopes that scientists and students participating in SPICE and other university outreach programs will continue to bring science to the public as they move forward in their careers. "We need scientists who are willing to engage with the public in many different ways," he says, from giving public lectures to sitting down with a teacher to develop curriculum, talking to six people in a café, or volunteering at a science museum.

The setting doesn't seem to matter much when it comes to getting people excited about science. Chabay recently got an e-mail from a high school chemistry and physics teacher who was vacationing aboard a cruise ship. She had been thrilled to see an exhibit called Spinning Magnets, which relates magnetism and electricity. The exhibit was one Chabay had installed on the ship in 1996.

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