Informal Chemistry Education

By Brittany Christian, Miami University, OH

I have always enjoyed learning random facts and tidbits of knowledge for the simple sake of learning. Hence, it should come as no surprise that one of my favorite places to visit growing up was the museum where knowledge was literally pasted on the walls. The best part of visiting museums was the independence I had to explore any display I wished without the dread of taking a quiz at the end! This unstructured environment gave me a satisfying sense of freedom to learn my way and at my pace.

As chemistry education researchers, we are all familiar with researching the challenges that students face inside of the classroom and laboratory. This area of formal education still has numerous research questions worth investigating in order to further improve chemistry education. However, chemistry education is not limited to students sitting in classroom chairs.

Branching out of the classroom/lab
Informal science education (ISE) concerns learning science in an out-of-school environment and often occurs in daily forms such as watching television, going on a walk, participating in recreational activities, or visiting a science center (museum, zoo, planetarium etc.). The ISE community has research interests in the areas of knowledge, engagement, attitude, behavior and skills. These areas of impact overlap well with CER initiatives.

My master’s thesis investigated learning outcomes and attitudinal changes from a chemistry museum exhibit on chemical and physical change. For this project I designed and built the exhibit that would serve as the focal point of the study. The quality of free-choice learning that I enjoy at science centers can prove to be quite the hurdle for research! Therefore, the ability to combine multiple techniques for data collection is highly beneficial in order to generate research outcomes that will contribute to future exhibits and programs.

Collaborations between chemistry education researchers and the ISE sector may prove to be a mutual exchange of research techniques and findings. For instance, have you ever considered gathering qualitative data by using a Mad Lib exercise? What knowledge about chemistry learning progressions and essential prior knowledge could you contribute to help an exhibit designer? This idea of melding CER with ISE is very fresh and presents a virtually untapped opportunity for the science education community. If this has helped to spike your interest, I encourage you to take a look at the starter resources I have placed at the end of this post.

Careers in science centers
I will be honest; this is not an easy career path to start. Most science centers focus on life and earth sciences, leaving a small demand for chemistry experts. The current pattern however may be slowly in the midst of changing as chemistry’s presence in informal education is growing.

The following represent a few of the many professional roles available in the field: exhibit designer, educator, curator, development/grant writer, and evaluator. Each position requires a different skillset. Start by researching positions you are interested in and take note that smaller science centers require one person to cover multiple areas.
Network! This is the most important task you can do to help start your career. The informal science industry is a small, tight-knit group of friendly and helpful people. However, they cannot help you if you do not introduce yourself! Networking takes time, but the benefits from meeting new people and learning about your field are priceless. Therefore, make use of networking at both local science centers and professional organizations.

The one consistent piece of advice I have received from museum professionals is to take the time to volunteer, intern or work part-time at a science center. Even though a job may not currently be open, showing off your strong work ethic and willingness to learn about the institution places you in a ripe position when a job opening does arise. Persistence is key! It may take a year or more of volunteering at the same science center before a job matching your interests opens.

Starter ISE Resources
Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L. D. (1992). The Museum Experience. Washington, DC: Whalesback Books.
National Research Council (NRC). (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Association of Science Technology Centers (ASTC)
Visitor Studies Association (VSA)
Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE)