Museum visits, science festivals and theatre performances could all contribute to learning about science, but the UK science education community - from schools and the government to informal science learning providers - is failing to recognise their value, according to research commissioned and published by the Wellcome Trust. As a result, many schools are missing out on valuable opportunities to provide context to pupils’ formal education.
The research on informal science learning also highlights that despite a commitment from providers to reach all parts of society, disadvantaged groups still do not have equal access to informal science learning opportunities.
While schools help students develop formalised understanding of general principles, experiences outside the classroom are essential to give meaning, relevance and context to the ideas that schools offer. They often provide a moment of emotional contact, where it is possible to have a hands-on experience, be challenged or provoked, or simply to enjoy the moment.
For example, in school students will learn about the theory of evolution, but a visit to the Natural History Museum will enable them to see how the natural world and the human race have evolved, bringing the theory and principles to life.
Although many educators recognise the importance of informal learning, few are familiar with the supporting evidence. Previous research has shown the positive impact on student attainment of learning experiences outside school during the summer break, and a 2006 study by the Programme for International Student Assessment shows that school extracurricular activities relate to better performance, enjoyment and more positive attitudes to science.
Young people spend less than one-fifth (18 per cent) of their waking hours in school, even when in full-time education; there is a lot of time available for influencing their learning outside the formal system.
Research commissioned by the Wellcome Trust in summer 2011, and conducted by UK-based GHK Consulting and by Stanford and Oregon State Universities, sought to characterise the value of informal science learning to science education in the UK. In particular, the reports aimed to explore its scope, the types of change it can bring, how it can be evaluated and how it relates to other parts of the education system.
The research found that practitioners of informal science believe passionately in the importance of science as part of our culture and want to convey this to others, but - although some teachers also appreciate the enriching experiences it can provide - schools often fail to take advantage of the opportunities on offer beyond the classroom walls.
In particular, access to informal learning is not equal across all demographics. Lower socioeconomic groups, rural communities, under-5s and adults are under-served. If informal science learning is to be a key component of an effective science education, this would mean these under-served groups are placed at an educational and long-term economic disadvantage.
Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, commented: "There is much to reflect on in these reports. How can we make it easier for schools to take advantage of informal science learning experiences, and in particular how can gaps in provision be addressed so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds don't miss out?
"This research will be valuable in helping us reflect on our own activity, and likewise we hope that schools and the government will take steps to ensure that the value of any interaction with the informal sector is maximised."
Sir John Holman, Senior Fellow for Education at the Wellcome Trust, concluded: "We are convinced that informal science can engage and interest people in ways that formal settings cannot. But we need greater collaboration between the informal and formal learning sectors, so that young people get a better all-round experience of science: interest sparked outside school needs to be sustained within it."
Over the past ten years, the Wellcome Trust has spent more than £50 million supporting projects to deliver performances, exhibitions, debates, games, broadcasts and other activities to help the learning of science, as well as developing its own venue, Wellcome Collection.
The two reports are published on the Wellcome Trust's website today, along with a short commentary responding to the reports from the perspective of the Wellcome Trust. The Trust will be hosting a closed event on Tuesday 4 December with key stakeholders from informal learning to discuss key outcomes and how to take the findings forward.