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Science beyond the classroom

Evidence and equity are key decides Clare Matterson.

Evidence and equity are key decides Clare Matterson.


When I was ten, I went on a school trip to the Natural History Museum. I saw the life-size model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling. I was enthralled by seeing the largest creature ever, bigger even than the dinosaurs, and discovering that it was still alive today. This ‘moment’ fed my nascent love of biology, leading ultimately to a career in science.

I am not alone in being inspired as a child by an experience of science outside the classroom. The importance of such experiences has underpinned the Wellcome Trust’s investment of over £50 million over the past ten years in museums, broadcast, art, science centres, universities and so on to engage young people in science outside the classroom. 

To get a firmer grasp of what we get for this investment, we commissioned two reports on the value of science learning in informal settings. They were published in November 2012. Below are some of their key findings and my reflections on them.

Better performance

There is no accepted definition of informal science learning, although a wide range of groups do it. It generally means activities taking place outside the formal education system, which seek to raise awareness of, interest in and engagement with science subjects.

Undoubtedly, school matters for learning formalised, general principles. However, the reports provide clear and persuasive evidence that learning outside the classroom results in better performance, enjoyment and more positive attitudes to science. These experiences are essential to give meaning, relevance and context to often abstract ideas. As such, learning should be seen as cumulative: ‘good learning is good learning, regardless of where it happens.’

Little use of evidence

Generally, the picture of informal science in the UK is a rosy one: hugely diverse, with many complex interactions and considerable innovation. Practitioners are united by a passionate belief in the importance of science as a part of our culture and the desire to inject an element of fun. There is, however, room for improvement.

Evidence on the impact of informal learning is often US-derived, not well known and rarely used by practitioners. This makes it difficult to persuade schools, funders and policy makers of the value of non-school learning. Objective evidence can convince. We need a basket of ‘killer facts’ to show that informal learning is not a ‘nice to have’, but a critical component of effective science education.

Unevenly spread

Despite a firm belief in equity, access to informal learning is not equal. Those between five and 16 years old are well served. Adults are under-served, suggesting that messages about the cultural importance of science to adult society are neglected. 

Rural communities and lower socioeconomic groups are typically neglected. These under-served groups are placed at an educational and – given the job opportunities science qualifications open up - long-term economic disadvantage.

Poor evaluation

Those providing informal learning tend to be driven by their passion and creativity. They evaluate their activities, but the evaluations tend to be locally derived, formative and not linked to research. 

Neither do practitioners developing activities refer to the research literature. It seems that practitioners can best be characterised as craftspeople, operating through a model of apprenticeship, observation and audience approval. This contrasts with the ‘professional’ tradition whereby formalised mechanisms are developed to record knowledge and train new and existing entrants. 

Over the coming months we will talk with practitioners and supporters to help think about how we can get better evidence; improve links with research; share expertise; have more systematic evaluation; and ensure there is equity of provision.

That way, all children can have their ‘blue whale’ moment.

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Dr Clare Matterson
Clare Matterson is the Director for Engagement and Medical Humanities at the Wellcome Trust
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