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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary - Beyond the Classroom: Informal STEM Education

February 26, 2009

Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Division Director of the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings in the Education and Human Resources Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF) testified at a hearing entitled, "Beyond the Classroom: Informal STEM Education," held by the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, Committee on Science and Technology on February 26, 2009. The purpose of the hearing was to explore the opportunities for education students and the general public about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in informal settings.

In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) reminded everyone that "a great deal of learning happens throughout our lives in everyday activities, from having a conversation at the family dinner table or watching a show on television, to attending a summer camp at a zoo or taking a trip to a museum."

In her testimony, Dr. Ferrini-Mundy, stated that the NSF's signature program for informal STEM education is the Informal Science Education (ISE) program whose objectives are "to promote lifelong learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics by the public and to advance the knowledge base and human capacity for improving STEM education." Currently, ISE has about 200 funded projects in its portfolio with 65 percent of those projects taking place in museums, science centers, youth and community programs, and radio, television, multi-media and web producers.

Since participating in informal learning environments are voluntary, Dr. Ferrini-Mundy said that "in addition to measuring what is being learned about science in such settings and what science is being learning, it is important to determine what will engage the learners and hold their attention," which is a major challenge.

Dr. Ferrini-Mundy stated that informal learning environments have great potential to "engage youth who may not thrive in the formal education system." Thus, the ISE program funds projects that focus on "learners from groups traditionally under-represented in STEM, and most projects include outreach to these groups."

Other witnesses at the hearing were Dr. Phillip Bell, Co-Chair, National Academies' report "Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits," Professor, College of Education, University of Washington, Seattle; Ms. Andrea Ingram, Vice President of Education and Guest Experiences, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois; Mr. Robert Lippincott, Senior Vice President for Education, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS); Dr. Alejandro Grajal, Senior Vice President of Conservation, Education, and Training, the Chicago Zoological Society.