Press release

Learning outside the classroom: Science Learning+ research projects announced

Science learning that takes place outside the classroom is the focus for 11 major projects launching internationally today. The projects, supported by Science Learning+, will investigate how people engage with science at visitor attractions such as zoos and natural history museums, the impact of participation in citizen science, and how art can help to explore science.

The projects, bringing together a variety of expertise from across the world of informal science experiences, will build evidence and examine the impact of such activities, including how they may help to widen access to science for young people from all backgrounds. They are funded via Science Learning+ an international initiative established by the Wellcome Trust, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), and the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Noyce Foundation. The scheme was launched in April 2014 after a review of informal learning commissioned by the Wellcome Trust indicated a need for further research to be undertaken in this area.

Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, said: “The Wellcome Trust has invested in an incredible range of activities to help young people engage with science both in and outside of school settings, from developing new curricula to pop-ups at Glastonbury. We know that for every waking hour that a young person spends in school, four are spent outside of it, and so we are delighted to be supporting these projects as they endeavour to find out more about the experience and impact of science outside the classroom.”

Through this initiative, the Wellcome Trust, along with the ESRC, has funded five planning grants, enabling initial collaboration and the development of ideas:

  • Citizen Science: This project will focus on large-scale ‘citizen science’ projects, examining learning outcomes and how any such learning occurs when people participate in the research processes - for example, through collecting or helping to categorise researchers’ data. It is led by Professor Richard Edwards from the University of Stirling.
  • Youth Access and Equity: This project aims to develop and improve understanding around the challenges of youth access to, and participation in, informal science learning activities, looking at young people from different backgrounds in the UK and the USA. It is led by Professor Louise Archer from King’s College London.
  • Science Live: This project will explore the differences between the huge variety of live science events and develop research questions about how they affect their audiences. It is led by Dr John Durant from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Equity models: This project focuses on young people who are relatively unlikely to engage with science experiences, some of whom come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and will test how effective an integrated art, science and society approach might be in engaging them. The project lead is Lynn Scarff from the Science Gallery in Ireland.
  • Natural History Museums: This project will look at the role of natural history museums within science education and how schools and museums might complement one another. It will be led by Professor Michael Reiss from the Institute of Education.

Professor Jane Elliott, Chief Executive of the ESRC, said: “It is very exciting to see that the first wave of activities under this initiative will soon be underway, with the long-term aim being to encourage more young people to engage with science generally. Science Learning+ encourages collaborations between researchers and practitioners and these phase 1 awards embody this aim, with partners including museums, science centres, digital technology companies and academic researchers from a wide range of disciplines from both sides of the Atlantic.”

In the USA, the NSF will fund a further six projects, which span: zoos and aquariums, how young children’s physical experiences can support their learning, online ‘affinity spaces’ and social media, online ‘digital badging’, the development of tools to help assess the impacts of different informal learning environments, and longitudinal research into existing evaluation data.

“These projects will help us to learn more about the impact of informal STEM learning experiences,” said NSF Program Director Dennis Schatz. “They’ll also improve our understanding of how informal environments may help to widen access to STEM for young people from all backgrounds.”

“I’m excited about this partnership with Wellcome Trust and the opportunity to build on the best ideas from two continents,” added NSF’s Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who leads the Education and Human Resources directorate. “Informal science education activities based on robust research will advance STEM learning for people of all ages.”