Science in Informal Settings


Many educators use out-of-classroom learning experiences to enhance, enrich and extend their students’ learning and motivation. Out-of-classroom experiences can serve as a foundational observation-based experience for students, reinforce students’ learning in the classroom, expose students to new and exciting career pathways and professionals, generate student interest and curiosity, and provide self-directed, learner focused learning opportunities.


Learning is a life-skill that cannot be confined to only one learning setting. With individuals spending as little as 9 percent of their lives in schools (Sosniak, 2001), we need to find ways to better utilize both classroom and out-of-classroom learning settings.

Although the school is the central institution for public education, all parts of the extended system have a responsibility for improving science literacy… Only when most individuals and organizations share a common vision can we expect true excellence in science education to be achieved” (NSES, 1996, p. 8).

Out-of-classroom learning vignette

To understand why out-of-classroom learning is so important, we can examine great examples for insights. Julie, a veteran public school teacher and a great elementary science educator, is a master at incorporating meaningful and enriching out-of-classroom learning experiences for her and her students. Each summer Julie maps out her curriculum and determines which units or lessons she would like to enhance, enrich or extend with an out-of-classroom learning experience. Julie typically incorporates an out-of-classroom experience as the introduction to a unit or as a way to deepen her students’ understanding of a particularly difficult or abstract unit of instruction. As an introduction to a unit of instruction, Julie finds out-of-classroom learning experiences invaluable in gaining her students’ attention and focus on the subject at hand. By picking the right out-of-classroom experience for her students, it makes the subject matter more relevant and interesting to them which makes her teaching on the subject more meaningful and effective. Likewise, when Julie uses an out-of-classroom experiences in the middle or end of a unit of instruction, she knows the experience can be a great way for her students to reflect on and refine their ideas, while also motivating them to learn more. In fact, a key criteria she uses to identify successful out-of-classroom learning experiences is how well a particular out-of-classroom learning experience can engage and motivate her students both during the experience and back in her classroom.

One of Julie’s favorite out-of-classroom learning settings is a workshop and tour at a local science museum. To prepare her students for this out-of-classroom learning experience, Julie reviews her curriculum map for the year to remember which learning objectives she wants to address with the experience. She prepares her students for the trip by letting them know how the experience will fit into their unit and what expectations she has for them on the trip. Whenever possible, Julie also works with her parent volunteers and chaperones to let them know how they can assist her.

At the museum Julie assists her students and the museum educators to help facilitate the experience. She works with her students, chaperones, and the museum’s educators to ensure the experience is as beneficial as it can be for her students. She also observes her students to see what aspects of the experience are most engaging and relevant for them, so she can use those points of interest to continue teaching and engaging her students back at school.

Julie loves providing out-of-classroom experiences for her class. They reinforce her students’ learning and motivation, give the class a shared inquiry and observation base, generate more student interest and curiosity about the subject, expose them to new career pathways and working professionals, and allow her students to invest more of themselves their own learning. Back at school, Julie builds on her students’ interest and motivation by continuing to engaging them on the subject and learning at hand.

Each year Julie incorporates many different types of out-of-classroom learning experiences. And each year, Julie reflects on the quality and effectiveness of these out-of-classroom learning experiences to determine how well they have helped her and her students meet their learning objectives and other goals. By doing this and creating a portfolio of successful out-of-classroom learning experiences for her students, Julie is able to provide a well considered vision and pathway for her students’ science education each year.

By utilizing a wide variety of educational out-of-classroom learning opportunities to meet her teaching goals each year, Julie’s teaching mirrors one of the main arguments made by Bybee, in his book, Learning Science and the Science of Learning. In this book, Bybee (2002), describes the purpose of science education as science literacy for all. He suggests the desired end result of school science is a scientifically literate citizen with students who are able to:

  • experience the richness and excitement of knowing about and understanding the natural world;

  • use appropriate scientific processes and principles in making personal decisions;

  • engage intelligently in public discourse and debate about matters of scientific and technological concern; and

  • increase their economic productivity through the use of the knowledge, understanding, and skills of the scientifically literate person in his/her career.

Out-of-classroom learning experiences are especially effective at motivating students and teaching them about the potential impacts of science on them and the world around them. By promoting that kind of scientific literacy in our youth, it is easy to see why out-of-classroom learning experiences are so important in the education of our youth and to our society as a whole.

What is out-of-classroom learning?

Out-of-classroom learning is a phrase used to describe a learning setting which occurs outside of the school classroom. From an educators' perspective these settings include student homework, assembly programs, visits to museums, science centers, laboratories, and businesses as well as student-based fieldwork, internships and mentoring opportunities.

Out-of-classroom learning includes many different types of activities, programs, experiences, and settings, which when properly applied will improve your students’ motivation, self-esteem, and achievement while broadening their perspectives and understanding of “real world science and its many applications in our lives.

Typical out-of-classroom learning includes:

  1. After school & extra curricular activities

  2. Assembly programs

  3. Homework

  4. Field trips

  5. Outdoor learning experiences

  6. Volunteering opportunities

  7. Service learning in the school or community

  8. Mentoring and internships

  9. Creative ventures (music, drama, dance, film, and the full range of arts)

  10. Partnerships with businesses and nonprofit organizations

  11. Online or digital learning opportunities

  12. Unstructured play

  13. Activities with parents/families

  14. Youth organizations such as scouting, 4H, YMCA, Etc.

  15. Museums & nature centers

Planning & Instruction

For many students the traditional classroom environment isn’t always the easiest place in which to learn, nor is it much like the “real world.” Fortunately, there are many other learning settings you can utilize to support student learning in the real world (Sanders. 2004).

Tips to successfully integrate out-of-classroom learning into your teaching:

  1. Seek help from every resource. Ask the teachers in your school who are teaching the same course what they are doing and why. Find teachers at other schools and compare notes and ideas with them. They may be able to provide you with some suggestions based on their experiences. If possible, sit in on another teacher’s out-of-classroom learning opportunities to see how well those out-of-classroom learning experiences would meet your needs. Contact local museums, science centers, nature centers and other science program providers to see what they can offer. Tap into professional organizations, journals, and websites that might also give you some great ideas (see the Resource section below for some links and ideas).

  2. Be flexible. Keep in mind that you are learning along with your students and things may not go as planned. Try to “go with the flow” and adapt your lesson to whatever questions or problems may come up.

  3. Learn from your students and parents. Listen carefully to your students’ and parents’ comments and suggestions. Since they have varied backgrounds and interests, it is possible that some of them may know a lot about the subject or have great connections to the subject. Students and parents may have also heard about new out-of-classroom learning experiences that could be added to your lesson. Similarly, a student question or comment may trigger ideas for you on how to approach an explanation or presentation for a particular unit of instruction. Finding out what students know and do not know is essential. Develop some kind of formative assessment strategies to learn what content and process skills students bring with them to better identify when to use out-of-classroom learning opportunities and which ones will be most effective for your class.

  4. Be creative and willing to try new ideas. Don’t be afraid to try new techniques. Different teaching strategies will work better for some content than for others. In addition, different groups of students respond to content in different ways. Experiment a little with something new.

  5. Don’t be afraid to “think big”. If you’re willing to invest the time, you can make amazing opportunities happen for you and your students.

  6. Reflect on your teaching. Take the time to sit down and think about the lessons after class every day. Sometimes there will be a few ideas that were a little confusing to you and to the students. You can begin class the next day with those ideas that need clarification or reinforcement.

  7. Write notes in a journal, or at least put short notes on your lesson plans as reminders for next time you use them.

  8. Plan homework and other out of class work to sustain learners' progress and to extend and enrich your students’ learning.

  9. Maintain a purposeful and safe learning environment for your students.

In summary, if you remember what you already know about teaching and use that knowledge to creating or using new out-of-classroom learning opportunites, you may find some great new ways to teach and motivate your students.

TALK: Reflection & Discussion

  • What are some strengths and limitations of out-of-classroom learning?

  • What kind of out-of-classroom learning opportunities are other teachers in your school or district providing for their students and why do you think they chose those opportunities for their students? Which of those out-of-classroom learning opportunities might work for you and your class as well?

  • What other out-of-classroom learning experiences can you think of and how might they fit into your teaching this year?

  • When would you use and out-of-classroom at the beginning, middle, or end of a unit of instruction and why?

  • Are there some out-of-classroom learning settings that work better for some of your students, but not others? Why do you think that is and how might you tailor the settings or learning experience to better suit the needs of all your students?

  • What are some of the barriers to using out-of-classroom learning and how can they be overcome?

DO: Action Steps

  • Variety is the spice of life. See if you can find a way to put together a rich variety of out-of-classroom learning settings and experiences each year for you and your students. Map out your school year, the units you plan to teach and one possible out-of-classroom learning experience for each unit.

  • Think about the units you teach and reflect on what kinds of experiences will make these units “real” for your students. Challenge yourself to work toward incorporating at least one out-of-classroom learning experience per unit.

  • Your school or district may have science support staff, like science coaches, teachers on special assignment, and/or science specialists who would love to help you. Contact them for ideas and possibly funding opportunities to make these opportunities available for your class.

  • Reach out to your local STEM community by accessing the getSTEM web portal ( The getSTEM web portal can connect you to the larger STEM community; on it you can ask for help or resources, or you can help another educator or STEM professional meet their own needs.

  • Attend local conferences like the Education Minnesota Professional Development conference and the Minnesota Science Teachers’ Association (MnSTA) annual conference on science education to meet and network with other teachers, to learn about resources for you and your class, and to recharge yourself personally and professionally.

  • Talk to your students and parents to learn more about their interests passions. Ask them to help find and arrange out-of-classroom opportunities for the class. An engaged and passionate student/parent is an amazing thing to behold.

  • Brainstorm a list of possible out-of-classroom earning settings for you and your classroom. For example, what are all the informal science centers in or around your town? What businesses offer field trips for school groups? Rate these learning settings as a group and decide which one(s) you want to learn more about.

  • Research more ideas online Start with the online resources like NSTA, MnSTA and the other resources listed below.

  • Dream Big! You can do this and many people want to help you. Think of one big idea you would like to try and list out the steps it would take to make it happen. Take the first step as soon as you can and schedule time to do the next two steps. Before you know it, you will be well on your way to another great learning experience for you and your class.

References & Resources

(*items are resources that may be especially worthwhile for teachers)

Bybee, R. (2002). Learning Science and the Science of Learning. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards (NSES). National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment. Washington, DC: The National Academy Press

*National Research Council. (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places and Pursuits. Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments. Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academy Press

SciMathMN and Minnesota Department of Education (1997). Minnesota K-12 Science Framework. Science Museum of Minnesota: St. Paul, MN. Retrieved June 5, 2011 from:

Sanders, L. (2004). Strategies for Teaching Something New. Science Scope, Sept. 2004.

Sosniak, L. (2001). The 9% challenge: Education in school and society. Teachers College Record, 103, 15.

*Yager, R., & Falk, J., ed. (2008). Exemplary Science in Informal Education Settings: standards-based success stories. National Science Teachers Association. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.


The CAISE (center for advancement of informal science education) Network includes groups and organizations that represent and serve sectors of the ISE field. Together, they form a communication network that supports the ISE community as a whole.

Learn more about the CAISE Network

The GetSTEM web portal can connect you with STEM related resources and opportunities as well as connect you with the larger Minnesota STEM network.

Learn more about GetSTEM

The Informal Science website is a source and online community for informal learning projects, research and evaluation.

Learn more about

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Informal Science Education (ISE) program invests in the development of experiences that encourage informal STEM learning. Funded projects reach audiences of all ages and backgrounds across the nation in museums, theaters, community centers, in virtual environments and many other settings, including outdoor environments and their homes.”

Learn more about NSF’s ISE program

*The Minnesota Science Teacher’s Association (MnSTA) has a mission to stimulate, coordinate, and improve science teaching and learning for all.

Learn more about MnSTA