Shelley Latham Outreach Coordinator

Engineering Experiences with Informal STEM Education

PostedThursday, February 7, 2019 at 5:43 AM

Engineering Experiences with Informal STEM Education

Image of Buckley AF Base library STEM program

For many of us, the time spent in school getting our formal education looms large—all those recess revelries, group projects, favorite teachers, and high-stakes tests. So it can be surprising to learn that children spend only 20% of their waking hours at school, and the average American spends only 5% of their lifetime in the classroom. This leaves a whopping 80-95% of our lives lived outside of school. And since it is fundamentally human to learn from the world around us, this non-school time is opens the door for creating, exploring, and trying new things.. Out-of-school time’s importance is reflected in the growing amount of education and learning sciences research examining how people learn from their earliest experiences to their final years.

LinkEngineering recently sat down with Melissa Ballard of The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) and Gina Navoa Svarovsky of the Center for STEM Education at the University of Notre Dame to discuss how K-12 educators and families can expand their access to engineering education through out-of-school time learning.  Here are some of the highlights.

What is it and where does it happen?

There are a number of terms used to describe what we’re calling informal education: lifelong learning, out-of-school time, afterschool, and informal science/STEM education (ISE). In a nutshell, anything learned outside of the regularly scheduled school day can be considered informal learning.

Informal learning can be planned and structured, or it can be unscheduled and open-ended. It can be what you learn when you bake with your grandmother, read the local newspaper, or attend concerts. Informal learning can also happen at museums, science centers, zoos, aquariums, nature centers, parks, botanical gardens, and public libraries. These institutions are especially well suited to deliver STEM and engineering education. Afterschool and summer programs also provide engineering opportunities for out-of-school time.   Media such as films, books, magazines, and games provide additional opportunities for informal learning.

Perhaps the greatest influence on informal learning is the family and what happens at home.  This is why successful school STEM programs often find ways to engage parents, grandparents, caregivers, and siblings. For more on family engagement and pk-12 engineering education, see our Video Conversation with Linda Kekelis and Tara Chklovski.

Why do people love it?

One important draw of informal learning is that it is usually free from the pressures and expectations of formal education with its emphasis on test prep and academic achievement. In addition, informal STEM education that includes hands-on, interest-driven activities can be very engaging for students as well as adults.  And informal STEM education can be very social, providing time for kids to explore and try new things with friends and family.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of out-of-school time experiences is that they provide a safe space for people to reimagine themselves. Gina explains it this way:

“In an informal learning space, people are able to recast their identity, just based on the experiences that they're having. . . .  So they might start to think that they are able to do science and engineering. [T]here’s this really exciting opportunity for informal spaces where it's a little bit safer to try ideas and try new topics outside the normal pressures and identities that they carry in a formal school context.”

Providing freedom of choice and the opportunity to rethink one’s identity and future options are some of the ways that informal education can create equity for under-represented communities.

What does engineering looks like in the informal space?

Informal education spaces can give people of all ages a taste of engineering. Through hands-on activities and guided design challenges, people can experience the iterative nature of the engineering design process, trying different solutions to see what works best. Given some materials and some design constraints, kids and their families can engineer in a way that is both playful and exciting, all the while with the option of being able to walk away. Providing students the autonomy to make decisions about what to try and for how long can be very motivating, since most students usually aren’t in control of their own learning choices in school.

AF STEM Camp via Flickr Creative Commons

AF STEM Camp via Flickr Creative Commons

Making and tinkering can be important components of informal STEM programs. Maker spaces are attractive in part because they save families and school teachers the expense of supplying materials and equipment, provide a safe place to create and get messy, and reduce  the time needed to set and clean up the activity.

How can I build engineering & STEM pathways?

For the time-stressed educator, informal education provides an opportunity to partner with organizations that have developed effective STEM programs, often rooted in their communities. Public libraries specialize in connecting their patrons with a variety of (often free) learning opportunities and resources. (For more, read our blog post on Libraries and STEM.)

Science and technology centers offer interactive displays and special events for families and school groups. In addition, many such institutions partner with school districts to provide professional development for educators who want to deepen their STEM instruction. (You can search for centers near where you live on the website of the Association for Science – Technology Centers.) Local parks, university engineering departments, community maker spaces all offer the potential to expand engineering education for teachers, their students and their families.

The bottom line is teachers can be a bridge between their students and informal STEM resources. To fulfill that role, you need to learn what is happening in your community and share that information with students and their families. Informal STEM education organizations are eager for partners.

Melissa says, “One of the important strands of thought within ISE is that if we can be intentional about connecting students and learners to other organizations or experiences within their local STEM ecosystem, then we can reinforce and enhance the learning that happens in each place.”

For a list of resources vist


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