Opinion: in addition to events and festivals like Science Week and the Young Scientist Exhibition, informal science education is a fantastic way to disseminate science to the public

By Sarah CarrollDr Claudia Fracchiolla and Dr Muriel Grenon, NUI Galway

Science weeks have become increasingly popular in recent years across Europe in an effort to inform the public about the role of STEM on the economy and society. The one just coming to a close in Ireland, which has been co-ordinated by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), featured over 900 events, such as family open days, school outreach events and public talks. All events share the common aim of engaging the public in STEM activities and bridging the gap between citizens, science and society.

How to engage all in STEM subjects

In Ireland, disseminating science to the public also serves as an opportunity for young people to see what opportunities STEM subjects offer in a career. This aligns with the goals of most EU countries to increase the number and diversity of students who choose STEM subjects as a career, contributing to a science literate society and the sustainability of a knowledge economy.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number and diversity of activities developed to achieve such goals. This is partly thanks to the recent increase in governmental funding directed to informal learning environments. For example, the Discover Science funding programme under SFI spend €2.8m in 2016, 1.5 percent of its programme budget, to fund activities contributing to informal science education, which support education, culture, and access to science.

What is informal science education?

According to the Centre for Advancement of Informal Science Education, Informal Science Education (ISE) is defined as continuous learning of all STEM disciplines that takes places across diverse settings and experiences outside of formal learning environments. Throughout our lifespan, we spend more time outside of formal learning environments than in it. These activities include watching science TV programmes, navigating science related websites, engaging with social media or listening to radio or podcasts. It may also be attending a science museum, exhibits at science festival, participating in a science camp or engaging with scientists.

The benefits of ISE may be greater than we are currently aware of

Benefits to young people participating

The benefits of ISE may be greater than we are currently aware of, especially in shaping interest in and opinions on science for young people. Different studies conducted over the years about the impact of informal science programmes show that participation in these programmes increases both students’ interest and enthusiasm towards science and students’ science knowledge. These programmes often offer children and young people the opportunity to engage in hands-on science and conduct science experiments, aspects limited in the formal school setting due to curriculum overload and constraints in time and resources.

These opportunities are very influential in increasing children’s understanding and interest in science. Additionally, ISE activities delivered by STEM scientist role models improve young people’s perceptions of scientists, moving from "boring" and "clever" to approachable "normal" people involved in a range of possible careers, making them realise that science might also be for them. This is important in particular to increase participation of women and minorities in STEM subjects and careers.

Informal science education in Ireland

Ireland boasts a particularly active informal science education sector operative all year around as well as during Science weeks. The sector is described in a recent report on STEM Education in Ireland, but has not been fully documented yet. The activities range from those delivered by discovery centres such as Atlantaquaria or Blackrock Castle Observatory to national initiatives like STEPS Engineering, Smart Futures and Coder Dojo. There is also outreach from higher education institututions such as Spectroscopy in a Suitcase and Cell EXPLORERS, private organisations (such as Anyone 4 Science and STEAM Ireland) and one-person shows like Scientific Sue and Dr How’s Science Wows.

Benefits to scientist’s facilitators

Some models of ISE programmes involve higher education students and active researchers. These programmes are often referred as outreach or public engagement and are based in research centres or Higher Education institutions. The benefits for scientists involved in ISE are many, from the gain of communication skills to researcher’s personal and professional development.

Preliminary research shows that involvement in ISE programmes could have a positive effect on facilitators’ confidence, their perception of science and sense of belonging to a particular community. More specifically, some studies in the United States have shown that participation in informal science programmes has a greater effect on women and other minorities and could be even linked to a diminishing of minority students’ attrition and dropouts in STEM disciplines.

Investing in informal science education for the future

Teaching and communicating about science to non-expert audiences in informal settings has been a hallmark of the scientific community. Informal programmes have a variety of goals and a wide range of content, audiences, facilitators, and medium. These goals are highly complementary to the ones of formal education. However, in Ireland, research is lacking to understand what makes individual informal science programs successful and whether investments in informal-learning strategies have impact.

Disseminating science to the public serves as an opportunity for young people to see what opportunities STEM subjects offer in a career

The realisation of proposed actions published in the Report on STEM Education in Ireland could lead to full development of the social and economic benefits of the ISE sector in Ireland. Two key actions include to link action of formal and informal science education providers under a national initiative and the establishment of STEM education research as a national research priority with appropriate funding commitment. A further action required would be the commitment of higher education institutions to fully commit, outside of the punctual involvement during science week, to the establishment and support of these programmes and their associated research.

Sarah Carroll is PhD Student in Biochemistry, specialising in Informal Science Education. Dr Claudia Fracchiolla is an informal science education postdoctoral researcher. Dr Muriel Grenon is a lecturer, All three are based at the School of Natural Sciences, NUI Galway and form the coordinating team of the Cell EXPLORERS programme.