On-Ramps to Where?

An essay by:

John H. Falk


Lynn D. Dierking




For generations educators have supported children and youth’s free-choice science learning through informal education experiences, such as visits to museums, science centers, zoos and aquariums, both school visits, as well as those with family/friends; various online programs, summer camps and scouting, and a growing array of increasingly targeted science/STEM programs in afterschool, on weekends, and over the summer months.

A recent U.K -wide survey of science educator goals, both in school and outside,1 found that despite the diversity of study participants, there was widespread convergence on programmatic goals. Informal science education leaders, as well as formal education leaders, all agreed that their top two goals were: “Make science enjoyable and interesting” (91%) and “Inspire a general interest in, and long-term engagement with science” (89%). Although these survey data are from a single nation, there is no reason to question the generalizability of these findings. Formal and informal educators consistently espouse these two goals. The question is, how successful are they at achieving these goals?

As we say in the U.S., there is good news and not-so-good news. The good news is that there is a considerable, and growing body of research, showing that individually and collectively, free-choice science learning experiences do contribute to children and youth perceiving science as both enjoyable and interesting. A variety of studies have demonstrated that both individually and collectively, informal experiences result in positive attitudes toward science and its enjoyment.2 However, evidence that free-choice learning experiences in a variety of informal science settings, influence children/youths’ long-term science interests and participation in science, is less certain and more equivocal. This is the focus of this paper.

Fostering Persistent, Long-Term Interest and Participation in Science

Although there is evidence that informal science education experiences significantly contribute to children and youth’s long-term interest and participation in science,3 these data also suggest that such contributions are far from universal and often specific to particular programs and youth. By contrast, substantial research suggests that youth persistence in science is typically more a consequence of affective, socioemotional factors, such as identity, interest, and motivation, and sociocultural/physical factors, such as social/cultural capital, income, education, and geography.4

Data from a decade-long research project, SYNERGIES, in a diverse, under-resourced Portland community reinforces these findings. Over the length of this effort, we have conducted long-term investigations of the science learning pathways of 11-14-year-old youth living in this community.5 These data suggest that the conditions required for children/youth to move from initial, situated interest and participation, to continued in-depth engagement (interest and participation) that could lead to long-term engagement and mastery of a particular science topic/practice are much more involved and complicated than most informal science education practitioners s have assumed. A recent, in-depth study of three youth over five years who were interested in STEM,6 showed that informal science experiences themselves only marginally contributed to youths’ long-term science interest and engagement. Much more significant were each of the youth’s habitus,7 in particular, a family’s social, cultural, and financial capital. In the presence of family social, cultural and financial capital, youth persisted in their interests, including being able to access informal education experiences, However, when families because of race/ethnicity, income and other factors, did not have social, cultural and financial capital, external resources like informal education, or for that matter schools, failed to be sufficient to ensure long-term persistence in science interest and/or engagement.

Of course, one might conclude that this is the (unfortunate) nature of things – with children/youth born into privilege having benefits and opportunities, and that those less fortunate not having those benefits and opportunities, but in fact, this need not be the case. There are many other non-science-related fields/disciplines, in which organizations/institutions regularly provide supports, that enable families to surmount their social, cultural and financial capital.

Fostering Persistent, Long-Term Interest and Participation in Sports & Music Education Experiences

Organized sports are among the most popular free-choice learning activities for children and youth worldwide,8 involving billions of children/youth in programs associated with everything from soccer/football, to martial arts, to swimming, and more. Such programs are available for children as young as 3 or 4, with tiered programs offered to all children to continuously participate from these early pre-school ages on through childhood and adolescence. Programs are specifically designed to support age-appropriate skill development, with programs for early childhood directly connected to programs for primary school-aged children, and primary school-aged programs designed to support and feed into secondary school-aged programs. At every level, children not only learn physical and social skills, but are encouraged to proceed to the next level, particularly those who demonstrate interest and talent. Although childhood participation in such programs still requires a degree of parental social, cultural, and financial capital, these kinds of free-choice sports opportunities are designed in ways that even children of parents lacking social, cultural and financial capital are made aware of the opportunities and encouraged to have their children participate. It is not until the ages of 11-14, that youth engage in sports through school. Perhaps most notably, when children in these school-based programs exhibit specific interest or skill, the leaders of these program work diligently to communicate with parents and guardians, strongly encouraging and supporting continued participation, often connecting them with out-of-school opportunities.

An analogous situation, although perhaps not as widespread or culturally supported, exists in the performing arts, particularly music programs.9 As with sports, organized music programs outside of school, exist for young children, as well as adolescents; most performance-oriented music programs in schools do not begin until age 11. Like sports programs, the leaders of these programs reach out to the parents/guardians of children who exhibit promise, and/or interest, and then strongly support and encourage continued participation. In both sports and music, youth with talent, are keenly sought and often their continued participation is free or subsidized.

In this way, sports and music programs create clear pathways for children/youth (whether underrepresented or under-resourced), to move from novice to increasing levels of expertise. They provide an abundance of entry level programs, clear and well-signed opportunities, and scaffolding for children and youth to grow and progress at every level of expertise. Thus, long-term interest and persistence in both sports and music are not disproportionately dependent upon parental social, cultural, and financial capital, or if there are challenges, there is intentional effort to ameliorate such differences. As a consequence, unlike in the field of science, it is rare to find a professional athlete or classical musician, or for that matter, a highly skilled hobbyist in these domains, who did not come through the ranks of organized, informal education programs, since they mindfully and systemically provide support for children and youth to progress from novice to mastery.10

Towards a More Systematic Approach to Long-Term, In-depth Engagement in Science

The current informal science education model is clearly deficient when it comes to supporting one of its key goals–creating opportunities for children/youth to remain interested and engaged with science long-term. Sadly, this need not be the case. If informal/free-choice science learning experiences were more thoughtfully and systemically conceptualized and organized, perhaps modeled after comparable sports and music programs, more children and youth would be able, and willing to move from interested novices to deeply engaged masters–whether vocationally or through leisure pursuits. For this change to happen, we believe three conditions should be in place. In particular, the science learning ecosystem needs to be better Customized, Coordinated and Connected.11

Customize opportunities: SYNERGIES research shows that a major constraint for children/youth in science was the fact that there were too few opportunities to engage in their specific interests. By customizing informal science resources in the ecosystem, that is considering the interests of individual youth, rather than providing one-size-fits-all programs. Typically, most informal STEM programming is designed as a generic introduction to a particular topic, which piques interest, but leaves children and youth seeking the next step, which is more difficult to identify or may not exist. One of the youths in SYNERGIES research attended a community-based program on coding. The program succeeded in triggering his interest in coding, but the program curriculum was essentially the same every year, minimizing the opportunity for him, and other youth, to extend their knowledge to other coding languages (e.g., Python and JavaScript). If such programs offered opportunities for repeat-attendees to learn new skills and continue to be challenged in their learning, such programs might better be able to provide the support youth need to persist in their interest.

Coordinate resources: A major constraint for youth when forming (and trying to sustain) science interests is the uncoordinated nature of various science offerings within different settings and contexts. This makes it extremely difficult for youth to find “the next thing,” that might be aligned with their interests. The lack of coordination, and consistent “signposting” of experiences and opportunities, is one of the reasons why only children/youth with parents who have social, cultural, and financial capital persist in their interests, since these parents are able to navigate the uncharted waters of the ecosystem, while parents with less capital in these areas, find it difficult to support their children. SYNERGIES findings suggest that successful ecosystem coordination requires all science providers in an ecosystem to commit to on-going and continuous communication among and between themselves, ensuring that opportunities and options are clearly and continuously signposted for children/youth and their families.

Connect learners to resources: As SYNERGIES data so strongly show,12 the social networks and connections that an individual has can strongly influence his/her ability to access resources and opportunities in a learning ecosystem.13 The results of differing levels of social, cultural, and financial capital were quite apparent in the differing pathways of the youth in this study. A major challenge in the future will be to develop effective supports to enhance “Navigational Knowledge” for families and other mentors. Possible solutions include the cultivation of science-specific mentors,14 in which adult volunteers were hired specifically to serve as brokers between youth and the science learning resources in a community. As Ching, Santo, Hoadley and Peppler, suggest, such brokering entails engaging in practices that connect youth to “events, programs, internships, individuals and institutions related to their interests to support them beyond the window of a specific program or event.”15

If the free-choice learning organizations/institutions within the science learning ecosystem, along with schools, can implement these kinds of Customized, Coordinated and Connected mechanisms, it seems possible that they could not only continue to achieve their goal of fostering enhanced short-term interest and enthusiasm for science, but equally meet the goal of stimulating and supporting long-term interest and participation in science, which was Mac Laetsch’s vision and dream.


End Notes

1  Falk, J.H., Dierking, L.D., Osborne, J., Wenger, M., Dawson, E. & Wong, B. (2015). Analyzing science education in the U.K.: Taking a system-wide approach. Science Education, 99(1), 145–173.

2  e.g., Bonnette, R. Crowley, K. & Schunn, C. (2019). Falling in love and staying in love with science: Ongoing informal science experiences support fascination for all children. International Journal of Science Education, 41, 1626 – 1643.

Bevan, B., Dillon, J., Hein, G.E., Macdonald, M., Michalchik, V., Miller, D., Root, D., Rudder, L., Xanthoudaki, M., & Yoon, S. (2010). Making science matter: Collaborations between informal science education organizations and schools. Washington, D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.

Falk, J.H., Dierking, L.D., Swanger, L., Staus, N., Back, M., Barriault, C., Catalao, C., Chambers, C., Chew, L.-L., Dahl, S.A., Falla, S., Gorecki, B., Lau, T.C., Lloyd, A., Martin, J., Santer, J., Singer, S., Solli, A., Trepanier, G., Tyystjärvi, K. & Verheyden, P. (2016). Correlating science center use with adult science literacy: An international, cross-institutional study. Science Education, 100(5), 849–876.

Falk, J.H., Pattison, S., Meier, D., Livingston, K. & Bibas, D. (2018). The contribution of science-rich resources to public science interest. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 55(3), 422-445.

National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2015). Identifying and supporting productive STEM programs in out-of-school settings. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Stocklmayer, S.M., Rennie, L.J. & Gilbert, J.K. (2010). The roles of the formal and informal sectors in the provision of effective science education. Studies in Science Education, 46(1), 1–44.

3  Crowley, K., Barron, B.J., Knutson, K., & Martin, C. (2015). Interest and the development of pathways to science. In K. A. Renninger, M. Nieswandt, and S. Hidi (Eds.). Interest in Mathematics and Science Learning (pp 297-313). Washington DC: AERA

Falk, J. H., & Needham, M. D. (2013). Factors contributing to adult knowledge of science and technology. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50(4), 431-452.

Jones, M. G., Childers, G., Corin, E., Chesnutt, K., & Andre, T. (2019). Free choice science learning and STEM career choice. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 9(1), 29-39.

Maltese, A. & Tai, R. (2010). Eyeballs in the fridge: Sources of early interest in science. International Journal of Science Education, 32(5), 669-685.

Rahm, J., & Moore, J. C. (2016). A case study of long‐term engagement and identity‐in‐practice: Insights into the STEM pathways of four underrepresented youths. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 53(5), 768-801.

Tai, R. H., Liu, C. Q., Maltese, A. V., & Fan, X. (2006). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312, 1143-1144.

Venville, G., Rennie, L., Hanbury, C., & Longnecker, N. (2013). Scientists reflect on why they chose to study science. Research in Science Education, 43(6), 2207-2233.

4  Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Willis, B. & Wong, B. (2012). Science Aspirations, Capital, and Family Habitus: How Families Shape Children’s Engagement and Identification with Science. American Educational Research Journal. 49(5), 881-908.

Bell, P., Bricker, L., Reeve, S., Zimmerman, H. T., & Tzou, C. (2013). Discovering and supporting successful learning pathways of youth in and out of school: Accounting for the development of everyday expertise across settings. In LOST opportunities (pp. 119-140). Springer, Dordrecht.

Shaby, N., Staus, N., Dierking, L. & Falk, J. (2021). Pathways of interest and participation: How STEM-interested youth navigate a learning ecosystem. Science Education, 105(4), 628-652. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21621

5 cf., Falk, J.H., Dierking, L.D., Staus, N., Penuel, W., Wyld, J. & Bailey, D. (2016).  Understanding youth STEM interest pathways within a single community: The Synergies Project. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 6(4), 369-384.

Staus, N.L., Falk, J.H., Penuel, W., Dierking, L., Wyld, J., & Bailey, D. (2020). Interested, disinterested, or neutral: Exploring STEM interest pathways in a low income urban community. EURASIA Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 16(6). DOI: https://doi.org/10.29333/ejmste/7927

6  Shaby, N., Staus, N., Dierking, L. & Falk, J. (2021). Pathways of interest and participation: How STEM-interested youth navigate a learning ecosystem. Science Education, 105(4), 628-652. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21621

7  cf., Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Willis, B. & Wong, B. (2012). Science Aspirations, Capital, and Family Habitus: How Families Shape Children’s Engagement and Identification with Science. American Educational Research Journal. 49(5), 881-908.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education. (pp. 241-258). Westport, CT: Greenwood.

8  cf., Kjonniksen, L., Anderssen, N. & Wold, B. (2009). Organized youth sport as a predictor of physical activity in adulthood. Scandinavian journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 19(5), 646-654.

Vertonghen, J. & Theeboom, M. (2010). The social-psychological outcomes of martial arts practice among youth: A review. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 9(4)), 528-537.

9  Hesser, B., & Bartleet, B.L. (Eds.). (2020). Music as a global resource: Solutions for cultural, social, health, educational, environmental, and economic issues (5th Edition). New York: Music as a Global Resource.

10 Kjonniksen, L., Anderssen, N. & Wold, B. (2009). Organized youth sport as a predictor of physical activity in adulthood. Scandinavian journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 19(5), 646-654.

Tunstall, T. (2012). Changing lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the transformative power of music. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

11 cf., Falk, J.H. & Dierking, L.D (2018). Viewing science learning through an ecosystem lens: A story in two parts (pp. 9-30). In R D. Corrigan, C. Buntting, A. & J. Loughran (eds.) Navigating the changing landscape of formal and informal science learning opportunities, pp 9-29. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

12  Shaby, N., Staus, N., Dierking, L. & Falk, J. (2021). Pathways of interest and participation: How STEM-interested youth navigate a learning ecosystem. Science Education, 105(4), 628-652. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21621

13  Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education. (pp. 241-258). Westport, CT: Greenwood.

14  e.g., Allen, S., Kastelein, K., Mokros, J., Atkinson, J., & Byrd, S. (2020). STEM Guides: professional brokers in rural STEM ecosystems. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 10(1), 17-35.

Falk, J.H. & Griesmer, R. (2019). Future trajectories for STEM education at Virginia Air and Space Center. Dimensions, 20(1), 31-36.

15  Ching, D., Santo, R., Hoadley, C., & Peppler, K. (2016). Not just a blip in someone’s life: Integrating brokering practices into out-of-school programming as a means of supporting and expanding youth futures. On the Horizon, 24(3), p. 296.

Featured Image Credit: Rifkin Professional Karate Center https://rifkinprokarate.com/


Posted Jun 8, 2021