Informal Science Education (ISE) and the Environment

April 22nd, 2015

Happy Earth Day! Celebrated each year since 1970, Earth Day provides an occasion to reflect on, engage in and support environmental protection and conservation. Informal STEM learning activities, including park programs, citizen science activities, media, and museum exhibits, offer innovative ways for community members of all ages to connect to and learn more about the environment, not just on Earth Day, but year round. The following resources from the repository demonstrate some of the ways in which ISE experiences and settings have engaged participants in learning about ecology and sustainability, and catalyzed awareness and action surrounding both local and global environmental challenges.


The Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program at the National Science Foundation has funded numerous grants that foster learning about environmental science and sustainability. Here are some examples:

The Science of Sustainability project (Project SOS) aims to develop a model of how the knowledge gained from exhibits can be applied to real-world issues such as sustainability. The project uses an interactive exhibit and accompanying activities to introduce rural youth and families to the concept of thermal energy and heat transfer. Participants then develop strategies to make their own homes more energy-efficient.

The iSWOOP (Interpreters and Scientists Working On-Site at Our Parks) project brings current scientific research to visitors at Carlsbad Caverns National Park by facilitating collaboration between park personnel and the scientists who are conducting research there. This supports the National Park Service (NPS) interpreters in communicating cutting edge research findings as part of their interactions with the public.

The Forest Science Dialogues project uses a public engagement with science model to bridge the gap between the scientists who study the Northern Forest in New England and the communities who live in and depend on that ecosystem. The project is co-designed by scientists and local community leaders through a process that involves community dialogue activities, scientist workshops, organization infrastructure, a stakeholder roundtable, and other follow-up activities.

Pathway to BioTrails is a citizen science project in which community members help monitor plant and animal species on Mount Desert Island and Arcadia National Park using a technique known as DNA barcoding. By using DNA barcoding, the project helps ensure accurate data collection, thereby improving scientists’ understanding of the region’s biodiversity.

Research and Reference Materials

What have we learned from environmental education in the past? The following articles highlight some of the findings that have emerged from informal education programs.

In the article “Convergence Between Science and Environmental Education,” authors Arjen Wals, Michael Brody, Justin Dillon, and Robert Stevenson address the opportunities for science educators, environmental educators, and citizen science participants to work synergistically to address socio-ecological challenges, such as climate change, pollution, and loss of biodiversity.

The article “How Framing Climate Change Influences Citizen Scientists’ Intentions to Do Something About It” by Janis Dickinson, Rhiannon Crain, Steve Yalowitz, and Tammy Cherry explores whether and how the way that science is communicated influences public opinion. The authors found that an emphasis on the dangers of climate change to humans was ineffective. On the other hand, effective strategies included positive messaging about how small collective changes could make a difference, or evoking concern for the impact of climate change on specific species.

The article “Putting on a green carnival: Youth taking educated action on socioscientific issues” by Daniel Birmingham and Angela Calabrese Barton explores what was learned from an afterschool program that hosted a “green carnival” to engage community members. The authors found that a combination of place-based and science expertise empowered youth to take action in their community.

How do informal learning and environmental science converge in your community? Share your experiences by leaving a comment, reaching out to us on Twitter (@informalscience), or contacting us at

Photo: Edd Prince CC BY 2.0