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Science Learning+: exploring the impact of informal science learning

Courtesy of Ross Powell and Reed Scherer, Northern Illinois Univ., data recovery from the ROV
April 10, 2014
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A new initiative launches today, providing £9 million of funding to explore how informal learning activities, such as visits to museums or science centres, playing games and watching dramas or documentaries, have the potential to make a positive impact on young people's engagement with science.

Science Learning+ is an international initiative established by the Wellcome Trust, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Noyce Foundation.

Science Learning+ will provide £9m to support research into the processes by which learning happens outside the classroom, exploring the most effective practices and building the evidence base in this area. The aim is to learn more about, evaluate and maximise the impact of informal learning experiences, and to improve understanding of how informal environments may help to widen access to science for young people from all backgrounds.

report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust in 2012 noted that while there is no official definition of informal learning, there is evidence to suggest that activities chosen for pleasure or out of interest can and do stimulate interest and learning in science. However, as this evidence is minimal and not widely known, the report indicated that there remains a need for more research to be undertaken in this area.

Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust said: "With young people spending just one-fifth of their waking hours at school, the Wellcome Trust wants to explore what sparks their imaginations outside of the classroom. Science Learning+ will provide evidence for what makes an effective informal learning experience, giving young people the opportunity to engage with science in ways that really work for them."

Science Learning+ funding is particularly aimed at encouraging collaborative projects between researchers and practitioners in the UK and the USA, developing stronger links and partnerships internationally, and building an informal learning community for exchanging experience and expertise.

"Projects such as science museum exhibits, after-school programs, giant screen films, Citizen Science projects, and science cafes are popular and get people involved in science outside of the classroom," said Dennis Schatz, program director in NSF's Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Setttings. "This collaboration will allow us to bring together the resources of both countries in understanding better the learning achieved through these kinds of projects."

Adrian Alsop, Director for Research at the ESRC, said: "We know from previous social science research that some groups of young people regard science as 'not for me' and there is often a perceived disconnect between the science learned in the classroom and how it can be applied with positive benefits in the real world. We also know that experiences outside of the school classroom, in more informal settings, can be crucial to unlocking people's interests. ESRC is delighted to be supporting this exciting initiative to investigate these issues further and hopes that in doing so in future generations, more young people will engage with the science that opens up many rewarding careers and addresses key challenges facing our societies."

The funding will take place in two phases, beginning with Planning Grants in 2014, to enable initial collaborations and ideas development, and expanding to longer-term Partnership Grants in 2015, for research programmes of up to five years.

Applications for phase 1, Planning Grants, are now open.