Institutions of Informal Science Education

Executive Summary


Inverness Research Associates for the Association of Science-Technology Centers, Washington, DC, 1996.

The activities of our daily lives rely heavily on an infrastructure that includes highways, sewers, electrical lines, phone networks, and water systems. Although this infrastructure may sometimes be hard to see, it serves as the foundation for the quality of modern life. Similarly, the educational enterprise and the quality of the teaching and learning that happens in classrooms across the nation also depend on an underlying infrastructure, albeit of a different sort. The infrastructure that supports education is composed of a wide range of institutions and people, ranging from the PTA to universities, libraries, and educational research centers. There is, of course, the physical infrastructure of schooling - the school buildings, buses, desks, and blackboards. There also is an intellectual infrastructure for education. For example, schools count on the strength of the universities and colleges that train the teachers, the curriculum centers that produce good materials, and the research labs that promote the collective understanding of the nature of teaching and learning.

Just as the soundness of the economy depends on the quality of the underlying infrastructure, so the soundness of the educational system depends on its underlying physical and intellectual structures. An accompanying two-volume report explores a largely unrecognized piece of that educational infrastructure. In particular, the report presents the results of a national survey that documents the contribution of institutions of informal science education, including science museums, aquariums, botanical gardens, zoos, arboretums, natural history museums, planetariums, and science-rich children's museums. The data presented in this report are gathered from more than 400 institutions of informal science education, and they illustrate just how extensively these institutions are supporting science education in the schools. More specifically, this report examines the proposition that institutions of informal science education already are serving as largely an invisible infrastructure that strongly supports the reform of science teaching in local schools all across the United States.

The two volumes that accompany this executive summary present a detailed discussion of the findings, as well as complete survey results illustrated in graphical form. This executive summary presents a synopsis of the study's major findings.


  1. Informal science-education institutions serve schools on a national scale

    There are at least 1,500 institutions in the United States whose mission is to promote informal science learning. These institutions include science museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, arboretums, natural history museums, planetariums, science-rich children's museums, and nature centers.

    Approximately one informal science-education institution exists for every 50 schools and for every 1,000 elementary school teachers in the U.S.


  2. School programs are a priority

    Three-quarters of informal science-education institutions have initiated programs that serve their local schools; they rate such school-support programs as a high institutional priority. On average, they devote $30,000 per year (or 5 percent of their overall operating budgets) to these programs.

  3. School programs are funded from local sources

    Approximately 80 percent of all funds for school-support programs conducted by institutions of informal science education come from local sources. Those moneys include fees, grants from local agencies, and museum operating funds.


  4. Informal science-education institutions focus on elementary schools

    Over 90 percent of informal science-education institutions focus their efforts on elementary schools and teachers. Only 10 percent said that their primary focus was on supporting high school teachers.


  5. Informal science-education institutions provide many forms of support for science education

    Institutions of informal science education provide many different types and levels of professional development for teachers, including assistance with curriculum and materials.

    Most offer short workshops that focus on specific hands-on activities. About one-half offer multiple-day workshops, provide teacher coaching and classroom support, assist with science kits, or help schools with curriculum development. About 20 percent are able to offer intensive multi-week teacher institutes, internships, or pre-service programs.


  6. Informal science-education institutions serve many teachers each year

    Every year, about 150,000 teachers are engaged in teacher education events that are conducted by informal science-education institutions.

    Overall, institutions of informal science education are serving approximately 10 percent of all the nation's elementary school teachers each year.

    Furthermore, approximately 20 percent of all U.S. elementary schools teachers who participate each year in science-focused professional development activities do so at informal science-education institutions.


  7. Many programs provide in-depth learning experiences for teachers

    About 27,500 teachers participate each year in in-depth professional development experiences, such as institutes and institute follow-ups.

    Roughly 40 percent of all elementary school teachers who participate in more than 35 hours of science-focused professional development each year do so at institutions of informal science education.


  8. Many institutions offer internships and residencies

    About 1,000 teachers each year are serving some form of residency or internship in institutions of informal science education.


  9. Many institutions of informal science education provide pre-service activities

    Approximately 10,000 teacher-candidate participants are engaged in a wide range of pre-service activities at institutions of informal science education each year.

    Nearly one-third of all such institutions have activities that serve pre-service teacher candidates.


  10. Informal science-education institutions are serving schools with large numbers of underrepresented students

    Institutions of informal science education provide services equally to schools whose student populations include low, medium, and high percentages of students from ethnic groups underrepresented in science.

    Nearly one-third of all such institutions serve a majority of schools that have a student population that comprises mostly underrepresented students.


©Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated,1025 Vermont Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005 202/783-7200. 202/783-7207 (fax).

The Association of Science-Technology Centers is a nonprofit organization of science centers and museums dedicated to furthering the public understanding of science and technology. ASTC encourages excellence and innovation in informal science learning by serving and linking its members worldwide and advancing their common goals.

Additional copies of this executive summary are available from the ASTC Publications Department, 1025 Vermont Ave.NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC. 20005. In addition, An Invisible Infrastructure: Volume 1, Findings ($13 for ASTC Members, $18 for Nonmembers) and Volume 2: Statistics ($30 for ASTC Members, $36 for Nonmembers) also are available.

An Invisible Infrastructure: Institutions of Informal Science Education

Executive Summary (ISBN# 0-944040-45-4)

Volume 1: Findings (ISBN# 0-944040-46-2)

Volume 2: Data Report. (ISBN# 0-944040-47-0)

Three-volume set (ISBN# 0-944040-44-6)

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