How do we value informal science experiences?
Learning can happen anywhere and at any time. Science Learning+ is an international initiative that aims to understand the power of informal learning experiences inside and outside of school. Phase 2 of the grant scheme opened at the end of February and will fund longer term research programmes. Mat Hickman from the Education and Learning team at Wellcome reflects on the origins of the scheme, the projects funded in Phase 1 and the hopes for Phase 2.
Informal science experiences
Nearly two years ago we launched Science Learning+. This arose from our interest in understanding the value of informal science experiences – the myriad of activities that includes trips to science and discovery centres, attending public lectures about science, doing hands-on science activities, watching YouTube videos, meeting a researcher…
There’s a lot of stuff out there! Wellcome has been funding these sorts of activities for decades because we believe that ‘informal science learning’ (ISL) has a positive effect on participants, including learning about science and especially on younger audiences.
The extensive evaluation of the huge amount of public engagement projects clearly points to these positive effects. But there are still questions to answer – perhaps people who engage positively with these sorts of experiences are just reinforcing existing interests, rather than being steered by the experience. And we don’t really know how to measure whether or not ISL does affect people. We’re not expecting to be able to distil a two hour visit to a science centre to a single number that tells us whether a young person will become a scientist. But we would like to explore how we might somehow gauge to what extent an ISL experience might affect people’s learning, future choices and/or attitudes to science.
Linking practice and research
And so was born Science Learning+. The scheme is a partnership between the Wellcome Trust, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US (which has a strong history of supporting research in this area through its Advancing Informal STEM Learning [AISL] scheme) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK. Science Learning+ aims to bring together people that develop and carry out ISL activities (‘practitioners’) with those who do research into these activities. Science Learning+ awards must be collaborations between practitioners and researchers, and between UK/Irish organisations and US organisations, such that there is wide sharing of learning and best practice.
Phase 1 of Science Learning+ provided seed funding to explore potential areas of interest, develop partnerships and scope out research questions more thoroughly. Through Phase 1, 11 projects were funded, five by Wellcome and ESRC and six by NSF. We funded a breadth of activity, with the projects looking at learning across settings such as zoos and aquariums, live science events and online. Details about the findings of the projects are available via the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education.
Understanding learning, and more
For Phase 2 we are looking to explore questions about ISL experiences in much greater depth. Phase 2 projects are expected to be 3-5 years in duration – perhaps longer for more longitudinal research. As well as addressing the nature of the engagement activity (such as watching videos online), we also expect projects to consider audiences. We are particularly interested in projects that fall within or across the following priorities:
- understanding learning
- engagement in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)
- skills development
- equity, diversity and access to informal learning settings
- measurement of outcomes.
The call for proposals for Phase 2 is now open. All applications to Phase 2 of Science Learning+ must be made via NSF and respond to the Science Learning+ solicitation; applications must include a UK budget using the template budget form provided on our Science Learning+ web pages. Applicants based in the UK or Ireland should contact Wellcome at SLplus@wellcome.ac.uk should they wish to find out more about the scheme, how to apply or discuss their proposal.
More details about Science Learning+ are available via the Wellcome Trust’s Science Learning+ web pages.