NSB Hearing Highlights Importance Of Informal Education In Improving Science Literacy

June 01, 1998

A better connection between informal and formal education would help to prepare K-12 science and mathematics students for the 21st century, according to several participants at an unusual hearing in Los Angeles May 29.

The one-day hearing, titled "Enriching Lives Through Informal Education," was hosted by the Committee on Education and Human Resources (EHR) of the National Science Board (NSB). The Board normally meets at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.. The LA hearing -- held at the National History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Science Center -- is the first of three planned by the Board's education committee to increase the Board's geographic outreach. (The second and third will take place in Chicago and Puerto Rico.)

NSB members heard panelists and local attendees discuss the range, impact, and future of informal (non-school-based) education. The National Science Foundation (NSF) invests $36 million annually in informal education activities such as museums, print and broadcast programs, and community-based organizations, to increase appreciation and understanding of science and technology. California receives more of such NSF funds than any other state.

Common themes expressed at the hearing included pleas for longer and larger NSF grants to build on promising experiments and extend proven programs; the need for more research on the nature of learning; the value of informal education (such as science museums) in training K-12 teachers; and suggestions for stronger connections with formal (school-based) education organizations.

"The informal science community is underestimating its own potential impact on science literacy, and its current and potential importance in supporting formal education," said former NSB member (now consultant) Shirley Malcom, who is also a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

"The formal education community is skeptical of the value of informal education," said Kathleen McLean of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. "We need both."

Former NSB member and Museum of Natural History Director Jim Powell emphasized the need for various segments of the informal science education community to work together. NSB vice chair and University of Texas-El Paso President Diana Natalicio added that new partnerships will have to be created because "distinctions among various kinds of institutions have begun to blur ... there is a ... convergence on effective learning, (but) these partnerships don't happen by accident. They have to be structured."

California Science Center Executive Director Jeffrey Rudolph pleaded for teachers to make wise use of science museums. "Use us well. There's a tremendous difference between the teachers who prepare (before bringing students to the center) and those that don't."

NSB education committee chair and California State Polytechnic Institute President Bob Suzuki called the hearing a success. "We've gotten a lot of great ideas, and a better sense of what is needed in informal education, which we could not have gotten back in Washington D.C. That's really the point of these field hearings."

Malcom said the EHR committee will report the results of the hearing to the full Board in a summary report.


For more on the hearing, see: http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/meetings/1998/fieldmay/fieldmay.htm

National Science Foundation

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