What is ISE?

January 1st, 2016

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Informal science education (ISE) is considered learning about science as well as technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) outside of the formal school setting (Bell et al, 2009; NSF, 2015; . A 2011 Wellcome Trust study of the United Kingdom found that informal science learning was “applied with reference to activities that take place outside of the formal education system and seek to raise awareness of, interest in and engagement with science and other STEM subjects” (Lloyd et al, 2012, p.4).

Findings from Research and Evaluation

Virtually all people of all ages and backgrounds engage in activities that can support science learning in the course of daily life. (Bell et al, 2009, p. 1)

Educational experiences can take place in a variety of settings, all of which afford opportunities to engage in STEM learning that is driven by the individual. Such settings may include at home discussions, museums, nature centers, zoos, aquaria, and everyday or recreational activities like gardening, hiking, fishing, and clubs or focused programs. Below are synthesized definitions of ISE environments based on Bell et al (2009), Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits.

  1. “Everyday science learning is not really a single setting at all—it is the constellation of everyday activities and routines through which people often learn things related to science” (p. 93). Everyday activities vary based on personal interests, culture, location, work, and family or community practices. Spontaneous opportunities arise through life experiences, as do purposeful activities, but they are very different due to an individual’s intentionality. While opportunities naturally arise for people to learn, deliberate pursuits come about through focus and interest in engaging in the experience.

  2. “Designed settings include institutions such as museums, science centers, aquariums, and environmental centers, and the smaller components contained within these settings, such as exhibits, exhibitions, demonstrations, and short-term programs” (p.127). Though individuals often choose to visit and engage in learning within these settings, the learning is not only controlled by the learner. Science museums, exhibits and programs are developed and presented with a set of goals intended for the learner. While learners freely choose how to participate, the opportunities within designed settings focus on “associating scientific thinking with engaging and enjoyable events and real-world outcomes” (p.128) to make the learning personally relevant.

  3. “Science learning programs serve a subscribed group and recur over time whereas learning in designed spaces tends to be more fluid and sporadic” (p. 127). Out of school time programs, whether for children, teens, or adults, are designed around an educational outcome or focus in which participants are interested. “They are learner driven, identifying and building on the interests and motivations of the participant, and use assessment in constructive, formative ways to give learners useful, valued information” (p. 173).

Informal Learning

ISE is founded within the broader sector of informal learning that support learning across all cognitive domains. This broader framing of informal learning includes all of the environments and experiences where learning may occur. Informal learning environments (ILEs), then, would include all of the environments that are described above as well as those experiences that include other forms of learning beyond STEM content and skills. Informal learning, then, covers the full range of our lives beyond the classroom. For the purposes of understanding the way informal learning is understood within ISE and beyond, many break it into three parts: lifelong, life-wide, and life-deep (Banks et al., 2007).

  1. Lifelong learning is a familiar notion. It refers to the acquisition of fundamental competencies and attitudes and a facility with effectively using information over the life course, recognizing that developmental needs and interests vary at different life stages. Generally, learners prefer to seek out information and acquire ways of doing things because they are motivated to do so by their interests, needs, curiosity, pleasure, and sense that they have talents that align with certain kinds of tasks and challenges.

  2. Life-wide learning refers to the learning that takes place as people routinely circulate across a range of social settings and activities—classrooms, after-school programs, informal educational institutions, online venues, homes, and other community locales. Learning derives, in both opportunistic and patterned ways, from this breadth of human experience and the related supports and occasions for learning that are available to an individual or group. Learners need to learn how to navigate the different underlying assumptions and goals associated with education and development across the settings and pursuits they encounter.

  3. Life-deep learning refers to beliefs, ideologies, and values associated with living life and participating in the cultural workings of both communities and the broader society. Such learning reflects the moral, ethical, religious, and social values that guide what people believe, how they act, and how they judge themselves and others. This focus on life-deep learning emphasizes how learning is never a culture-free endeavor.

Bell et al., 2009, p.28


Banks, J.A., Au, K.H., Ball, A.F., Bell, P., Gordon, E.W., Gutiérrez, K., Heath, S.B., Lee, C.D., Lee, Y., Mahiri, J., Nasir, N.S., Valdes, G., and Zhou, M. (2007). Learning in and out of school in diverse environments: Lifelong, life-wide, life-deep. Seattle: Center for Multicultural Education, University of Washington.

Bell, P., Lewenstein, B., Shouse, A. W., & Feder, M. A. (Eds.) (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Retrieved from http://informalscience.org/research/ic-000-000-002-024/LSIE

Lloyd, R.,Neilson, R., King, S., & Dyball, M. (2012). Review of Informal Science Learning: Executive summary. United Kingdom: Wellcome Trust. Retrieved http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/stellent/groups/corporatesite/@msh_peda/documents/web_document/wtp040863.pdf

NSF. (2015). Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL). Retrieved from http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=504793