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Institutions and Project Descriptions

(Museums Afterschool: Principles, Data, and Design)

The MAPDD (Museums Afterschool: Principles, Data, and Design) project brought together over twenty educators from fourteen museums and afterschool organizations to study the underlying design principles driving successful informal STEM programs in afterschool settings.

MAPDD centered on the documentation and analysis of high-quality afterschool STEM programs.  We asked the central question: What's so informal about informal science learning?  Especially in terms of structured afterschool programs for middle and high school youth.

The action research project consisted of three workshops at the Exploratorium; two-years of video data collection of programs at the 14 different sites (see below); project participants' online and in-person review and reflection on program designs and outcomes captured in the videos.  This documentation served three primary ends: 

  1. illuminating the design, facilitation, and environmental principles underlying the observed activities, 
  2. providing a body of evidence highlighting how the integration of those principles into the activities shape student experiences, and 
  3. offering a model for reflective professional development for project participants.

Identifying Design Principles of Structured STEM in Informal Settings.

The informal science learning design principles we have identified are tentative, and undoubtedly incomplete.  They represent a small part of a much larger effort that is beginning to specify and ultimately leverage the field of informal science education. Most of this important work to date is at the level of organizational types, missions, and strategies, and less at the level of practice.  Some of the work has contrasted formal and informal learning designs and experiences in ways that have helped to frame differences but might have obscured the hybridity of much practice -- especially as more formal educators are moving into the informal space, and more informal educators are asked to consider the concerns of formal STEM education.

Given this context, the contribution of this project is to further specify, and perhaps to further problematize, what is informal about informal science learning activities at the level of practice -- where we make choices about what we do, when, and why.

DRAFT  Informal Science Programs Design Principles

(1) Activity Design

  • Goals/tasks relate to and build on prior interests and knowledge
  • Materials invite inquiry (demand to be touched, explored, etc.)
  • STEM is positioned as a means not ends to engagement
  • Multiple pathways run in and through the activity
  • Activity provides ability to complexify choices, directions, and tools

(2) Facilitation Approaches

  • Spark interest through modeling, inviting, welcoming
  • Sustain engagement with questions, and what-ifs
  • Deepen understanding and purpose through complexification and  reflection

(3) Environmental Characteristics

  • Ideas and inspiration are seeded by models, prior work, activities in the setting
  • Organized to allow for cross- pollination of ideas
  • Organized to support initiative and autonomy
  • Organized to enable and allow collaboration

Designing for What?

During the course of reviewing the videos to identify design principles, many times particularly strong values or important features of the informal science activities were surfaced among the project participants.  For example, participants frequently commented on the evidence they saw of emotional resonance between learners.  It became clear that the participating informal educators both highly valued, and also sought as designers, opportunities to support emotional resonance among participating children.

Through much discussion we came to agree that emotional resonance was not an endpoint nor was it a design strategy, but rather it was an outcome of programs that informal educators counted as successful. These goals included but went beyond facilitators successfully covering particular content areas or children successfully accomplishing particular tasks. Successful programs were characterized by high and consistent levels of the following measurable and valued features (which we have operationalized for use in formative, embedded program assessment):

  1. Engagement, counted as children's active participation in terms of both duration and frequency, and the ways in which their work is inspired and enriched by program design elements;
  2. Intentionality, as demonstrated through variation of approaches, personalization, and evidence of self-direction;
  3. Innovation, as demonstrated through children's increasing fluency with scientific concepts, tools, and processes; evidence of repurposing and redirecting; and increasingly sophisticated questions, use of tools, or complex solutions; and
  4. Solidarity, as demonstrated through children's helping, borrowing, sharing, and building on the ideas and work of others.  

These programmatic features "engagement, intentionality, innovation, and solidarity" are mutually reinforcing properties.  For example, designing activities to respond to children's prior interests, or using materials that in and of themselves invited handling and inquiry (such as long lengths of rubber hose for race car tracks or toy animals as shadow makers) increased levels of engagement, which in turn built solidarity and intentionality among participants.  Solidarity was thus not designed as such, but rather emerged from design principles that included sustaining children's interest through moments of boredom or frustration, asking what-if questions rather than providing answers or demanding explanations, creating conditions in which participants were able to borrow, share, help in order to achieve their goals.

Importantly, we stress the non-linear aspects of these features, rather than seeking to identify linear or causal relationships between any one of the design principles and the properties of the learning activity. Understanding  experience to develop contextually and contingently, we do not seek to predict uniform results for the inclusion or exclusion of particular design principles.  Instead we focus here on the values that the highly seasoned informal educators participating in this project held, sought to develop, and designed for.  For this reason, at this stage in our project, our focus remains on delineating the design principles insofar as they may point to differences in both strategies and values that may more clearly distinguish informal and formal science education in ways that can help educators build on the promise and affordances of each setting.

June 2011

Participants in the MAPDD project include:

Alex Hamilton: Education Director, Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo; Andrea Hernandez: Community Science Workshop Director, Children's Museum of Houston; Anika Ward: Director, Youth Science Center, Science Museum of Minnesota; Betsy King: Senior Educator, St. Louis Science Center; Brandon Byrd: Senior Educator, St. Louis Science Center; Bronwyn Bevan, Associate Director of Program, Exploratorium; Carla Mayer: Senior Program Specialist, TRACE; Cheryl McCallum: Director of Education, Children's Museum of Houston; Chris Burda: Senior Exhibit Developer, Science Museum of Minnesota; Debora Lui: Programs Coordinator, MIT Museum; Dennis Schatz: Senior Vice President for Strategic Programs, Pacific Science Center; Diane Miller, Director of Community and School Programs, St Louis Science Center; Edith Ackermann, Visiting Professor, MIT; Glenda Baker: Teaching Artist, TRACE; Heather Gibbons: Senior Director for School and Community Education, St. Louis Science Center; Jason Lee: Executive Director, DAPCEP; Josey Balenger: Project Coordinator, Youth Science Center, Science Museum of Minnesota; Karen Miel: Director of Programs, Coyote Point Museum; Karen Wilkinson: Director Learning Studio, Exploratorium; Kayla Dove, Director of Education, Brooklyn Children's Museum; Kristin Leigh: Educational Services Director, Explora; Leonisa Ardizzone: Executive Director, Salvadori Center; Leslie Herrenkohl, Associate Professor Learning Sciences, University of Washington; Mark Mayberry: Learning Academy Director DAPCEP; Meaghan Sullivan: Manager, Youth and Family Programs, Pacific Science Center; Mike Petrich: Director Making Collaborative, Exploratorium; Fan Kong, Center for Informal Learning and Schools Project Coordinator, Exploratorium; Pam Garza: National Project Director, PD, National 4-H Council; Paula Hooper, Institute for Inquiry Senior Research Associate, Exploratorium; Peter Dow, President, Firsthand Learning; Rebecca Meyer: Extension Educator in 4-H Youth Development; Rebecca Swanson: Science Educator, Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo; Robin Meisner: Director of Exhibits, Providence Children's Museum; Roz Director of Education, Brooklyn Children's Museum; Tara Henderson: Educator, Explora; Vera Michalchik, Senior Social Scientist, SRI International