What is Informal Science?

Informal science education (ISE) is lifelong learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that takes place across a multitude of designed settings and experiences outside of the formal classroom.


People of all ages learn science in an increasingly wide variety of ways. Formal schooling is only one part of a larger ecosystem of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning that also occurs throughout one’s lifetime. When we talk about the field of informal science, or STEM, education, we are referring to experiences and settings that are being designed, implemented and assessed by a community of dedicated, trained practitioners. This can include film and broadcast media, science centers and museums, zoos and aquariums, botanical gardens and nature centers; cyberlearning and gaming; public science events;  youth, community, and out-of-school time programs; and a growing variety of learning environments. Informal STEM education is informed and supported by a knowledge base of evidence from evaluation studies, learning research, and wisdom from practice. The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) supports ISE by providing web infrastructure and resources for those working in and with the field.


What is InformalScience.org?

InformalScience.org is a central portal to project, research and evaluation resources designed to support and connect the informal STEM education community in museums, media, public programs and a growing variety of learning environments.  The website is operated by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), an NSF-funded resource center for the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program.

InformalScience.org contains the following types of resources:

  • Projects are funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as other public and private funders.  Projects in the collection are diverse, but can broadly be defined as engaging public audiences in informal STEM learning.
  • Research and reference materials included peer-reviewed educational research, conference proceedings, research briefs, presentations, reports, thesis and dissertation work, and other works that explore the impacts, contexts, and lessons learned from informal STEM learning experiences and settings.
  • Evaluation reports share project impacts and evaluation findings.  These include submissions from professional evaluators conducting front-end, formative, summative, and other evaluation studies.  Projects are invited to publicly share their evaluation reports via InformalScience.org to share results and help others build upon their experiences.


Key Resources for Getting Started with ISE


“The 95 Percent Solution: School is Not Where Most Americans Learn Most of Their Science” by Falk and Dierking: This article makes a compelling case for lifelong informal STEM learning experiences by explaining that approximately 5% of an individual’s life is spent in formal classroom settings.  Informal learning experiences therefore play a crucial role in fostering a scientifically literate citizenry.  The article presents evidence for the impact of out-of-school STEM learning experiences on public understanding of science.


Learning Science in Informal Environments: Places, People, and Pursuits: In January 2009, the U.S. National Research Council released this consensus report about informal science education, which is still considered to be one of the most important pieces of literature in the field.  Philip Bell, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and Associate Professor of Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, stated that "Learning is broader than schooling, and informal science environments and experiences play a crucial role. These experiences can kick-start and sustain long-term interests that involve sophisticated learning."


Surrounded by Science:  This book is a companion to the “Learning Science in Informal Environments: Places, People, and Pursuits.”  Written for a practitioner audience, Surrounded by Science provides case studies, examples, and questions to facilitate the practical application of lessons learned from the original report by those working in museums, out-of-school time programs, the media, and more.


Eyeballs in the Fridge: Sources of Early Interest in Science: What makes a person decide to pursue a career in science?  This article examines the motivations of STEM professionals, finding that the majority (65%) of study participants reported that their interest in science began before middle school.  The article also discusses the variety of experiences that sparked initial interest in science, including both formal education and out-of-school or family learning experiences.