The Year in Informal Science Education: Milestones in STEM Learning 2016

CAISE year ISE 2016

January 17th, 2017

Thank you from CAISE for your nominations and suggestions for notable events, publications and developments in informal STEM learning in 2016. Among those that rose to the top include:

The National Park Service/National Geographic Learning Summit and the Every Kid in the Park initiative

To help engage and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates, the White House, in partnership with the Federal Land Management agencies, launched the Every Kid in a Park initiative. The goal was to provide an opportunity for every 4th grade student across the country to experience their federal public lands and waters in person throughout the 2016-2017 school year. Since September 1st, 2016 all kids in the fourth grade have access to their own Every Kid in a Park pass, which provides free access to national parks across the country. This initiative coincided with the National Park Service’s centennial, a celebration of America’s wild places, where informal STEM learning takes place on a daily basis.

Noteworthy Reports

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released several reports this year that document the evidence-based consensus of a committee of experts on topics of interest and relevance to informal STEM education:

Effective Chemistry Communication in Informal Environments. Recent innovations in design and technology, and findings from learning research and evaluation have advanced the way that chemistry and related sciences are being exhibited and addressed in informal settings. This  report is organized into two sections. “Part A: The Evidence Base for Enhanced Communication” summarizes evidence from communications, informal learning, and chemistry education on effective practices to communicate with and engage a diversity of publics outside of the classroom; presents a framework for the design of chemistry communication activities; and identifies key areas for future research. “Part B: Communicating Chemistry: A Framework for Sharing Science” is a practical guide intended for any chemists to use in the design, implementation, and evaluation of their public communication efforts.

Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda. This report makes the case for a research agenda that would fill gaps in knowledge about how to communicate effectively about science, with a particular focus on issues that are contentious in the public sphere. It treats the science of science communication as an emerging field that would be advanced by an agenda to investigate cross-cutting issues such as method/goal alignment, moving beyond the so-called “deficit model” and ethics, e.g. The report also addresses the rapidly evolving communication environment that science communication practitioners and researchers must navigate and recommends a systems approach to addressing related issues. It builds on and is complementary to another recent National Academies Press (NAP) report, Science Literacy: Concepts, and Consequences and both contain useful information, provocations and opportunities for those researching and designing informal STEM learning experiences and settings.  

The Academies’ consensus reports are informed by the findings of many researchers, including Dan Kahan, who wrote a 2016 paper with colleagues on Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing. The study reports observational and experimental data on subjects who watched science videos and shows that science curiosity promotes open-minded engagement with information that is contrary to individuals’ political predispositions. As curiosity is an impact that informal STEM education practitioners often design for, and a construct that researchers grapple with measuring, the study will be of interest to the ISE field. Kahan et al’s Cultural Cognition Project website is a regularly-updated resources for papers, blog pieces and project descriptions such as one on Evidence-based Science Filmmaking.

The fields of informal science learning and science communication are comprised of many sectors—after school programs, science center exhibitions and programs, television and film, print and new media, to name just a few. Live public science events, a rapidly growing sector cultivated and tracked by the Science Festival Alliance and International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC) organizers, came into its own in 2016 with the publication of the Science Learning+ funded Science Live landscape study. The report uses claims as a way of naming and organizing chapters and in each presents evidence for what is known as well as unanswered questions for further research and reflection. It provides a useful framework for other sectors to explore.

Afterschool Alliance STEM Hub launched

The Afterschool Alliance STEM Hub convenes national afterschool STEM leaders to address how best to advance the afterschool STEM learning sector. In 2016, working with the Frameworks Institute, the Hub found widespread public lack of familiarity with the term “STEM” and a strong need to frame after school STEM as an issue of ensuring fairness and prosperity for all. Among the findings that professionals in all ISE sectors will find useful was that communicating the importance of afterschool STEM with an “equity” frame that highlights specific populations, or a “national competitiveness” frame, were likely to polarize members of the public to “take care of their own.”

NISE Network Transitions to National Informal STEM Education Network

As their NSF funding drew to a close at the beginning of 2016, the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net) transitioned to the National Informal STEM Education Network (NISE Network). Led by the Science Museum of Minnesota, the new NISE Net has several affiliated projects including:   

  • Space and Earth Informal STEM Education project (in collaboration with NASA and led by Science Museum of Minnesota

  • Building with Biology, focusing on synthetic biology (funded by NSF and led by the Museum of Science)

  • Sustainability in Science Museums (funded by Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives and led by Arizona State University)

  • Transmedia Museum, focusing on science and society issues raised by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (funded by NSF and led by Arizona State University)

  • ChemAttitudes, focusing on interest, relevance, and self-efficacy about chemistry (funded by NSF and led by the Museum of Science

Visit their website for news of events, resources and opportunities in 2017 and beyond.

Notable Exhibits

The New York Hall of Science’s (NYSCI) Connected Worlds exhibit, developed with Design I/O, took the prize in the Interactive category at the Science Media Awards and Summit at the Hub (SMASH) last year. (Additional partners include Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Yale University’s Cognitive Science Department, New York University’s Games for Learning Institute, game designer, programmer and conceptual artist Zach Gage). The 2,500 sq. ft. immersive museum experience, enhanced by the context of NYSCI’s recently-renovated Great Hall, engages visitors in systems thinking and environmental sustainability by inviting them to explore six simulated distinct, interconnected habitats. Through interacting with these dynamic, connected ecosystems, visitors are invited to develop collaborative strategies for managing the main finite resource: water. Wired magazine’s review of Connected Worlds states, “The installation’s application of technology may be new, but it’s based on an old idea: That kids learn more effectively when they’re allowed to explore things on their own.”

A consortium of European museums, led by PavilhĂŁo do Conhecimento: Centro CiĂŞncia Viva (Lisbon, Portugal), with Universcience (Paris, France) and Heureka (Helsinki,Finland) created the exhibition VIRAL: A Contagious Experience, an interactive exploration of the cultural conceptions of the term viral (like viral videos) as well as what a virus is, how vaccines work and how the immune system works to recognize microbes. Claire Pillsbury, Program Director Osher Fellowships at the Exploratorium reports that “The design is ingenious and engineered with traveling in mind — modular exhibit units can be easily re arranged and assembled/disassembled from hardware fasteners, canvas, brightly painted metal pipes and flat wood panels. The activities are engaging and varied — appealing to learners of all ages.” The exhibition is on display at Universcience, Palais de la DĂ©couverte through August 2017.

Planet Earth II

2016 saw the return of the BBC nature documentary, Planet Earth. Like its predecessor, the new series utilizes cutting edge cinematic technology to capture never-before-seen footage of some of Earth’s more elusive inhabitants in ultra high definition. Planet Earth II is again narrated by Sir David Attenborough and will air in the United States on BBC America beginning in February 2017.

Hidden Figures

The informal STEM learning community has long recognized the importance of role models in the effort to broaden participation in STEM. A new movie called Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly and released in 2016 is inspiring a new generation by telling the true story of how three African American women, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan overcame many obstacles to make landmark contributions during their lifelong careers at NASA. Katherine Johnson’s calculations were key to the success of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission in which astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. The script’s math and science content was vetted by researchers at NASA and the film is in US theaters now.

LIGO and the Discovery of Gravitational Waves

In February the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the discovery that for the first time, scientists were able to directly observe and measure gravitational waves that resulted from the collision and merger of two black holes, confirming a major prediction of Einstein’s theory of relativity. (Read more…) California Institute of Technology was recently funded by the NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program to produce a documentary and other outreach materials about the discovery.

Photo credit: Claire Pillsbury