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National Informal Science Learning Initiative Launched

This week, Wellcome Trust and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in collaboration with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) officially launched the Informal Learning Initiative, a 9-million pound project that aims to revolutionize the way that science is taught throughout England.

The program’s main goal is to teach science through out-of-classroom activities—a far cry from England’s current “safety”-regulated science courses. The program aims to encourage young people to get their hands dirty and participate in different scientific experiments outside the classroom. The informal initiative is going to revolve around off-campus trips and field exposure to practical science. Beginning this coming September, most schools in England are going to be implementing the program, both in younger year levels (beginning with receptions) and in post-GSCE levels.

Dennis Schatz, the program director of NSF’s Learning Division says that the project is going to be pooling together the resources of more than a hundred institutions nationwide with the addition of a couple of hook-ups with US-based science institutions. Among these are various science cafes and learning centers that up until recently have been viewed as “alternative learning” stations.

Mr. Schatz says that pulling these resources together is going to help integrate theoretical science and practical science: he says the only way to keep students interested in science is to show them how its done and how it impacts the world around us for the better. While he doesn’t deny the fact that classroom learning is important, he says that most science careers don’t take place within the classroom—instead they take place in an area (whether laboratory or not) where possibilities can be explored.

Adrian Alsop, the Director for Research at the ESRC says that he is backing the program, a hundred percent. Mr. Alsop says that the coming five years are going to be very interesting for young people in England—the new program is going to bring back a certain life to England’s science courses that has recently been lost in the attempt to “sterilize” the sciences. Mr. Alsop says that they’ve designed the informal learning initiative for specific year-levels (e.g. reserving more complex, mind-boggling field trips for the older students and more visceral, “shocking” trips for the younger kids). He also says that they want to reverse the certain “science isn’t for me” notions that a lot of older teenagers might have—he stresses that it’s never too late to start learning about science.

Mr. Schatz says that it’s about time the practical sciences were inculcated into formal education. Both the NSF and the ESRC stress that the time has come for the academe to begin actually teaching its students things that they can use in the future. Both parties have also expressed annoyance at government attempts to “raise the bar” of the sciences simply by adding more tests and giving more exams to “study for”. They say that a good education in the sciences doesn’t come from studying about tests (although they also see its importance)—it comes from interest, motivation and satisfying suppressed innate curiosity.

Also helping with the informal initiative is the learning center Science Learning+, a transformational science institute that focuses on teaching science by demonstration. The program has been booked to run for the next five years, throughout most of England. A similar start-up in the US is also set to begin in 2015; all resources between the two countries will be shared, in the hopes of raising the bar for science education everywhere.



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