Informal settings have long been recognized as an ideal place for in-service teacher professional development, largely because of their emphasis on learner-directed learning in a phenomenon-rich setting. In fact, teacher professional development is offered extensively by informal institutions such as museums, science centers, zoos, and education and outreach staff of parks for mainly three purposes: to provide content knowledge to pre-K-12 teachers, to provide pedagogical skills based on informal instructional techniques, and to promote the use of teaching materials (often developed by the institution itself). Until recently, however, their role has been relatively undocumented, and much of the evidence for their effectiveness or even successful practice is hidden in evaluation studies that have not been made public. There is evidence that teachers make extensive use of professional development provided through informal institutions and that they enjoy the different perspective provided by informal settings. However, little is known about whether professional development provided by informal science settings is more effective than that offered by other providers.
While many informal settings offer some form of professional development for teachers, very few cooperate with teacher colleges to offer educational experiences for teachers in training or pre-service teacher training. David Anderson and his colleagues from the University of British Columbia, Canada, studied how informal science settings could be used for a pre-service program.19 The setting selected was the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. The program began with pre-service teachers participating in a 3-day intensive program, which served as an orientation to the aquarium’s educational programs. They also learned about student-centered, hands-on pedagogy and the institution’s educational goals, described as “developing inspiration, curiosity, and marine stewardship.” Following the program, the teachers spent 10 weeks working in a school. Then they returned to the aquarium for another 3 weeks to work in the educational programs under the guidance of aquarium staff.
After the school and aquarium segments were completed, Anderson conducted two focus groups with the aspiring teachers, analyzed reflective essays they wrote during the semester, and made ethnographic observations at the aquarium. Based on their reflections and experiences, the researchers determined the impact of the experience in terms of their understanding of the big picture of education and their growing sense that learning can take place in many settings; their understanding of education theory; their classroom skills, sense of autonomy, and