is often marginalized by traditional emphases on mathematics and literacy. This is quite evident under current federal education policy, which creates incentives for mathematics and literacy instruction and which appears to be reducing instructional time in science and other subject matters, especially in the early grades (e.g., Center on Education Policy, 2008). Finally—though it needn’t be and isn’t always so—much of science instruction in schools focuses narrowly on received knowledge and simplistic notions of scientific practice (Lemke, 1992; Newton, Driver, and Osborne, 1999; National Research Council, 2007; Rudolph, 2002). Clearly, informal environments can and should play an important role in science education now more than ever.
Learning science in informal environments has the potential to bolster science education broadly on a national scale. This is evident in reports from national initiatives to improve education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the United States. For example, both the Academic Competitiveness Council and the National Science Board were charged with reviewing the effectiveness of all federally funded STEM education programs, as well as recommending ways to coordinate and integrate the programs. The council’s report cites informal education as one of three integral pieces of the U.S. education system (the other two being K-12 education and higher education) needed to ensure “U.S. economic competitiveness, particularly the future ability of the nation’s education institutions to produce citizens literate in STEM concepts and to produce future scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists” (U.S. Department of Education, 2007, p. 5). Federal interest in informal environments is also reflected in the National Science Board’s report on the critical needs in STEM education (National Science Board, 2007). The National Science Board report stresses the need for coherence in this kind of learning and an adequate supply of well-prepared and effective STEM teachers. It calls for coordination of formal and informal environments to enhance curriculum and teacher development. Informal education is described as an essential conduit to increase public interest in and understanding and appreciation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Furthermore, the report calls for the informal education community to be represented on a nonfederal national council for STEM education that would coordinate education efforts in this area.
This report echoes the need for greater coherence and integration of informal environments and K-12 functions and classrooms, and it urges a careful analysis of the goals and objectives of learning science in informal environments. While often complementary and sometimes overlapping with the goals of schools, the goals of informal environments are not identical to them. Differences may stem from the populations that participate in school and nonschool settings, the fact that participation is compulsory in K-12 settings (but is typically not in nonschool settings), and the relative emphasis placed on affective and emotional engagement across these settings. Yet, despite these differences schools and informal settings share a common inter-