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Student Well-Being

National Science Foundation Deemed Leader in Informal Learning

April 01, 2011 6 min read
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At the Golden Gate Bridge, a set of exhibits is being built to educate millions of annual visitors on the science and engineering behind the San Francisco landmark. In Washington state, local Girl Scout troop leaders are getting trained to teach children about scientific inquiry. And a giant-screen film titled “Tornado Alley” that debuted in March—and is being accompanied by a comprehensive outreach program—aims to help audiences explore the science behind severe weather events.

Those disparate enterprises to advance public understanding of science—along with hundreds of others over the years—have been fueled by the federal Informal Science Education program at the National Science Foundation.

Federal agencies have long supplied money and overseen initiatives that support learning outside the classroom. They include the U.S. departments of Energy and Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. The U.S. Department of Education also supplies some dollars that reach science-focused after-school activities through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

But many experts assert that the National Science Foundation stands apart in the role it has played in advancing the field often referred to as “informal science” learning.

“The heart of the federal government that has really shown leadership over the years is the National Science Foundation,” said Kevin J. Crowley, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh who directs the university’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments. “They’ve really transformed the field.”

“It has been absolutely essential,” Alan J. Friedman, the former longtime director and chief executive officer of the New York Hall of Science, said of the science agency’s role. “The growth of the field of informal science learning has been hugely influenced, accelerated, and quality-controlled by NSF. It has been the single major factor.”

‘Anywhere, Anytime’

The NSF first launched a program for informal science learning in the 1950s. At the time, it was called Public Understanding of Science. In 1983, that initiative was replaced by the the Informal Science Education program, which is the main but not only source of NSF funding in this domain.

The agency provides about $65 million a year through the program, which supports a wide variety of activities, including the production of films and community projects, traveling museum exhibits, after-school initiatives, and cyber-enabled learning. Of that amount, about $25 million is available for new awards, while most of the rest goes toward the continuation of prior grant commitments.

Every project grant requires an evaluation to assess impact. The science foundation also provides grants specifically for research and has helped support the establishment of organizations such as the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education, a partnership of several institutions that aims to improve informal-science-education practice, document evidence of its impact, and communicate the contributions of the field.

The emphasis of the NSF’s Informal Science Education program is learning outside formal school settings.

“The way we describe informal science education is ... anywhere, anytime, lifelong learning,” said Alphonse T. DeSena, a program director at the NSF. “Sometimes it happens in school, but it’s not part of the curriculum.”


The National Science Foundation supports a wide range of initiatives through its Informal Science Education program, distributing about $65 million in grants each year. Among the new or continued grants announced over the past two years are:

Engaging Latino Audiences In Informal Science Education

Addresses the low participation rate of Latino youths and adults in activities conducted by parks, refuges, nature centers, and other informal science education venues.

Go-Botany: Integrated Tools to Advance Botanical Learning
$1.63 million

Integrates Web tools and mobile-communication devices to facilitate learning about botany and plant conservation, with a focus on native and naturalized plants in New England.

Gulf Oil Spill Disaster Coverage

Supports National Geographic television’s creation of a multiplatform media effort to communicate the scientific and engineering stories unfolding in the Gulf region as a result of the major oil spill in 2010.

Making Space Social: Exploring the Educational Potential of the Facebook Social Network

Underwrites a pilot investigation by the Space Science Institute on the use and effectiveness of STEM-related games within contemporary Web-based, multiuser social-networking platforms.

MathCore for Museums
$1.71 million

Develops and evaluates a set of open-ended math exhibits that use body motion to engage children and their families in learning experiences with ratio and proportion over multiple museum visits.

The Matter of Origins

Supports the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, in partnership with universities and a science advisory panel, in producing The Matter of Origins, a two-part experimental program that engages the public in explorations of the nature of beginnings and the physics of the origin of matter.

Pushing the Limits: Building Capacity to Enhance Public Understanding of Math and Science Through Rural Libraries

Finds new ways of communicating STEM concepts, with a focus on rural libraries and adult residents in places that are geographically remote from typical venues such as museums, zoos, and science centers.

$2.60 million

Subsidizes a PBS show and multimedia project designed to encourage and empower more girls ages 8-13 to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

Tornado Alley

Supports a large-format 2D/3D film and comprehensive outreach program exploring the science behind severe weather events.

NOTE: Figures reflect either total funding or amount awarded to date.
SOURCE: National Science Foundation

The agency, he said, tries to have a broad reach in terms of content, audience, and the nature of the learning experience.

“In all of this, we’re trying to promote successful interactions with the public and improvements in how to do that,” Mr. DeSena said, adding that “educational innovation is a key element for any award that we make.”

Martin Storksdieck, the director of the Board on Science Education at the National Academies, said he appreciates the way the NSF has pushed grant applicants. It doesn’t simply underwrite good ideas, he said; rather, it insists that any new grant support an idea that somehow advances the field and moves beyond current practices.

“I like the idea of the NSF saying: Make the case for me why this is important. Build on what’s been done before. Create partnerships that work, and ask yourself if what you’ve created is effective,” Mr. Storksdieck said. “The culture of that type of thinking has been created by NSF.”

Observers note that the agency’s work in informal science has evolved over time, and that over the past decade or so, it has ratcheted up requirements for evaluating the impact of projects.

Sue Allen, the director of the NSF’s division of learning in formal and informal settings, said she sees a number of important changes over time in the agency’s work.

“What it takes to get funded gets harder and harder,” she said. “NSF has been moving the bar higher in terms of evaluation, disseminating and learning from prior work, and connecting with other research areas and traditions.”

She added: “We’re pushing for a more compelling and nuanced rationale for what [applicants] do.”

Some Grants Questioned

To be sure, the NSF’s work has faced criticism at times.

Last year, some bloggers who have been critical of the Obama administration blasted the science agency for committing $700,000 for an experimental theater troupe in New York City to produce a musical on climate change and conservation. Critics called it a questionable use of public money, especially in light of the severe federal budget deficit.

Mr. DeSena of the NSF defends the project, saying that it was highly rated by external reviewers and that “the use of dramatic techniques in informal science learning has a very long and solid history.”

Meanwhile, according to Mr. Storksdieck, some institutions that pursue informal science learning have been disappointed that the NSF has been so focused on research and the development of new ideas, rather than continued support for established programs or practices.

“Once you develop the new idea, you have to let go” of the federal funding, he said. The NSF is “not there to sustain funding.”

Moreover, he said: “There are people who complain that spending 10 to 20 percent [of a project grant] on research or evaluation is a waste of money.”

Also, some observers have expressed disappointment that funding for the NSF’s Informal Science Education program has not kept pace with the fairly robust growth over time in the agency’s overall budget, which climbed from about $4.4 billion to nearly $7 billion from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2010.

“Basically, the NSF budget for Informal Science Education has experienced no appreciable growth for at least five years,” said Anthony “Bud” Rock, the chief executive officer of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, in Washington. His group received startup funding from the NSF that helped expand the presence of science centers around the country.

The Informal Science Education budget has seen a couple of significant bumps since the mid-1990s, but has changed little more recently, rising only about 5 percent over the past five budget years. It was $66 million for fiscal 2010.

Even that growth, however, could be reversed, given the current push in Washington to scale back federal spending. For example, the Republican-led House approved a fiscal 2011 budget plan in February that would cut the NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate budget, which includes the Informal Science Education program, by $166 million or about 20 percent.

This story was underwritten by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as National Science Foundation Seen as Leader in Advancing Informal Learning


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