There is a growing recognition that individual museum visits, dinner-table discussions, visits to nearby parks, online searches, or TV shows have a cumulative effect on learning that we don’t yet fully understand. We do know, however, that informal experiences that result in learning science need to be recognized and leveraged as part of an individual’s personal learning pathway in science. Fostering links between experiences in school and out of school is one important way to enhance science learning. These linkages can help children and youth understand that learning is not restricted to schools and that there are opportunities to engage with science all around them. See the Appendix at the end of this chapter for a discussion of major programs of research exploring the links between formal and informal settings for science learning.
Although there is tremendous potential to link formal schooling to informal experiences that occur outside of school, there are also many barriers to overcome when forging these links. For one thing, the goals and objectives of informal learning environments like museums, zoos, parks, libraries, and planetaria do not perfectly match those of schools. Schools focus much of their efforts on imparting knowledge, while informal settings place greater emphasis on interest, emotion, motivation, and engagement, and provide learning experiences that are meant to be entered and explored based on free-choice, rather than a learning agenda that is external to the learner. Another important difference between schools and informal settings is that schools face increasing pressure to meet accountability requirements that place a premium on students’ test scores. These same pressures have affected informal settings to a lesser extent. As a result, schools and informal institutions may appear to hold different goals for learning when, in fact, both share a common interest in enriching the scientific knowledge, interest, and capacity of students and the broader public.
In order to more effectively support science learning across the life span, it is essential to consider how schools and informal settings can work together more effectively. Below we consider some of the major points of intersection between schools and informal settings, focusing on field trips, after-school programs, and professional development opportunities for teachers.