This time of year, I think a lot about informal science education in my community. Local organizations are busy promoting summer camp offerings for children, many with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) themes. Science competitions for kids of all ages–including science fairs, robotics competitions, Science Olympiad, and the like–reach their final exciting stages. Local museums and educational institutions include tie-ins with Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March) that feature the stories of historic and contemporary scientists. Nearby parks offer a respite from the waning winter days by offering programs on birds, winter wildlife, and so forth.
In recent years, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to lend my expertise in science to some of these efforts: I have judged science fairs, led Science Olympiad events, and trained teachers in summer workshops, among other things. An annual highlight in my STEM outreach arrives each March, when I get to participate in a local day-long conference for middle-school girls that focuses on careers and hands-on activities in many areas in science. These workshops are led primarily by women in science–current and retired specialists in STEM fields far and wide, from health care to wildlife rescue, from physics to veterinary science. For many of these years, I have incorporated the tried-and-true hands-on activity of extracting DNA from strawberries as part of a discussion about different career options and areas of investigation in biology.
Recently, more attention has been paid to the specifics of delivery of informal science opportunities for children and families. As school budgets and priorities have focused more on the basics of reading and math, integrated exploration of science, the arts, and life skills in the lower grades often have been left more and more to individual teachers’ ingenuity, but partnerships and events with museums, parks, local nonprofits, etc. beyond the classroom can help fill in the gaps. Organizations such as the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) have been working to gather data on what works and what doesn’t, and to provide resources for teachers, scientists, museums, and other interested parties to support their ideas. Museums, wildlife outreach programs, and local parks have long been involved in such ventures for years. Increasing coordination and assessment of successful programs and partnerships with schools and individuals through internal efforts, funding agencies, and resource groups (such as the Association of Science-Technology Centers [ASTC]) makes this an exciting time for informal science education.
Even adults can get in on the action! A few weeks ago, I checked out an informal science outreach event for adults that was held at a brewery. Nationally, the idea of bringing science discussions to small venues such as coffee shops and other local establishments has taken off as the Science Cafe movement, with local groups sprouting up here and there that expand on these ideas and create opportunities for scientists and nonscientists alike to meet up and talk about their interests.
Although I am a scientist and higher education professional, I have been working in informal science outreach with children since I was a student myself. Building support and excitement among young people, in particular, for the process of scientific discovery helps keep a continuum of ideas flowing from one generation to the next. It’s important that we include a scientific perspective in our communities as we work together to solve problems that span disciplines and areas of expertise. I’m looking forward to sharing more about informal science on these pages in the future!