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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary - Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy Testifies Before House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education

February 26, 2009

On February 26, 2009, the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education heard testimony from Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division Director for Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings within the Education and Human Resources Directorate. The purpose of the hearing, titled "Beyond the Classroom: Informal STEM Education," was to examine the role of informal learning environments in promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), opened the hearing by acknowledging the key role of informal science education (ISE) in the STEM learning process. Lipinski also mentioned the influence of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry in his pursuit of a degree in mechanical engineering. Representative Vern Ehlers (R-MI), reinforced the importance of ISE and expanded upon this concept by sharing his personal relationship with informal learning. Unable to attend school as a child due to illness, Ehlers learned many of the basic principles of science as they pertained to daily life. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in Physics.

Of particular interest to the Subcommittee were the ways in which informal STEM learning can complement and enhance classroom STEM education. In order to maintain our Nationís global competitiveness and attract the next generation of scientists and innovators, the Subcommittee sought insight into the following aspects of ISE:

  • In what ways can informal education enhance classroom learning?

  • Do we know which methods are effective? Do sufficient metrics exist?

  • What are the key factors in forging successful partnerships between formal and informal education institutions?

  • What role does informal learning play in promoting diversity and broadening participation?

Ferrini-Mundy's testimony focused on ISE research and the breadth and significance of projects supported by NSF, the principle sponsor of research on ISE. Overarching themes of the collective hearing testimony, including the recently released findings of the National Academies report titled "Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits," are as follows:

  • High-quality informal programs stimulate significant and sustained science learning in ways that can support classroom-based STEM education.

  • Although much progress has occurred in recent years, additional insight into the range of formal and informal activities that cultivate lifelong interest in STEM fields is needed.

  • It is necessary to develop teacher training partnerships in conjunction with competency indicators, curriculum alignment, and other metrics. New media and increased utilization of interactive technologies will be a key component in the success of these efforts.

  • Informal environments for science learning can be particularly effective in educating underrepresented groups because community-based projects provide participants an opportunity to actively shape the inquiry process based on their own values and culture.

In addition to Dr. Ferrini-Mundy, witnesses who testified before the Subcommittee were: Dr. Phillip Bell, Co-chair of the NSF-funded National Academies report "Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places and Pursuits" and Professor, College of Education at the University of Washington, Seattle; Ms. Andrea Ingram, Vice President of Education and Guest Experiences at the Museum of Science and Industry-Chicago; Mr. Robert Lippincott, Senior Vice President for Education with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS); and Dr. Alejandro Grajal, Senior Vice President of Conservation, Education and Training at the Chicago Zoological Society.

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