Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

Informal science education like museums can teach key concepts and fill gaps in STEM education

Photo by Carlton Ward

Photo by Carlton Ward

Excerpt from “Ecoliteracy in informal science education settings” in EcoLiteracy, pp. 474–475:

Specific metrics for the status of US science education indicate that the country is losing its competitive edge on a global scale; among nations, the US ranks 22nd in density of broadband internet penetration and 72nd in density of mobile phone subscriptions, both of which are critical tools for science literacy and likely contribute to our international rank of 48th in quality of math and science education. Even worse, 69% of US public middle-school math students are taught by teachers without degrees or certificates in mathematics, and 93% of public middle-school teachers in physical sciences lack degrees in their subject (NAS 2010). All of these rankings represent indicators of global science leadership. In short, formal science education systems in the US lag behind those of many other countries, and our ability to train the next generation of scientists is at risk (Brewer and Smith 2010). In addition to shortfalls in public schools, US K–12 youth now watch at least 4 hours of television daily, and the average teenager spends a whopping 7.5 recreational hours daily in front of television and gaming screens (NAS 2010) – time that instead could be devoted to doing homework or experiencing the natural world through outdoor engagement. The formal STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education metrics for US education are not keeping pace with those of other developed countries and are declining over time. Ecology education is experiencing one of the largest deficits: public schools have cut back on field trips and many K–12 students now experience nature virtually, rather than directly (Louv 2008; Lowman and Mourad 2010). Likewise, many undergraduate and graduate programs are eliminating their natural history programs, sometimes referred to as the “extinction of the ologies” (Lowman and Mourad 2010).

In contrast, informal science education (ISE) is now providing a larger compensatory component of STEM education to students as well as to citizens and policy makers. Currently, US museums tally approximately 850 million visits annually, which is more than the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (483 million in 2011; www.aam-us.org). Along with these visits, museums are also recording a burgeoning virtual visitorship, with an additional 524 million online visitors in 2006 alone, which has escalated during the past 5 years. In the US, there are over 17,000 museums, whose visitors range from several hundred for a rural museum with a local mission to >8 million annually for larger or national museums (www.aam-us.org); many of these ISE experiences bolster shortfalls in formal STEM education. Natural history museums, with their biodiversity collections and interpretive dioramas, serve as focal points to provide ISE about ecological concepts, including biodiversity, ecosystem services, climate change, and landscapes. In many cases, K–12 students become inspired by seeing, touching, and working with collections; and increasingly, virtual technologies and social media are becoming important drivers of science education concepts for youth outside of the formal classroom setting. Both undergraduate and graduate students can gain valuable training in science communication and outreach using the public floor of museums and other ISE platforms (Trautmann and Krasny 2006; Lowman and Mourad 2010). Given the declining competitiveness of US science education on a global scale, ISE has become an important pipeline for engaging the next generation of scientists and for contributing to otherwise declining ecological literacy.

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