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I am among the estimated 67 million visits to science centers in the US (pre-COVID). You probably are too if you read a blog! Most American adults are widely interested in science. In fact, most of our science learning happens in our adult lives through “informal” experiences, including visiting science museums, reading science news magazines and blogs, watching science shows, attending science festivals, participating in civic science and many others. (Any science experience that takes place outside of school—a “formal” setting—is considered an informal science experience. More on that later!)

If you’re like me, you probably thought that learning science only happened in school. It took me a while to realize that some of my hobbies, like nature journaling and taking my little nephew to the zoo, enrich my understanding of science and nature, inspire me to be more curious, and move me into a category , which I am proud to be a part of: lifelong learners!

The things we learn as lifelong learners are pretty amazing. Partly because of my interest in lifelong learning, I decided to pursue a career in exploring and improving non-formal science education. I now explore how experiences that are so compelling and fulfilling to me personally enrich discovery and learning for others. Remember the time you spent tinkering with equipment this weekend? Or the gardening blog you read to find out when to plant broccoli seeds? Or the NOVA show you watched recently? These impromptu experiences are what make up lifelong science learning.

Science near me

At first glance, the overlap between “scientific learning” and “things I choose to do in my free time” may not seem obvious. But there are so many opportunities to learn while participating in fun, interesting and rewarding activities – it’s just a matter of finding them and, of course, taking some time to engage. I can’t help with the latter, but to address the former, I’ve joined forces with others to create a new, free, open web resource called Science Near Me.

With support from the National Science Foundation, an interdisciplinary team of experts in science engagement, informal science education, web platform design, and instructional research came together to create Science Near Me is a web platform based and built by the citizen science organization SciStarter that serves as a science engagement buffet: We digitally connect databases and calendars from museums, festivals and many other partners, offering thousands of local and national opportunities. This makes it easier than ever to find the best science experiences for you based on your interests and location. At the same time, I (and others who research science education!) have a better understanding of how and where non-formal science education happens.

Learning to learn

Researchers like me like to categorize things. We call the learning that happens in school “formal learning” because it is highly structured and largely optional. Learning that happens outside of school is called ‘informal’ or ‘free choice’ learning because it tends to be flexible and voluntary, often done because people like it and have fun doing it.

Informal learners may take up a learning hobby on purpose, such as being trained as citizen scientist. Or learning can be more spontaneous and independent, like checking out a new exhibit at the local science center [link to Exhibit search] or looking through a telescope at a star party.

Science education researchers, like my colleagues and I, are scholars who focus our attention on how people learn. While a fisheries scientist might study how salmon find their way back to their spawning grounds, I could study how a fisheries scientist found his way to becoming a salmon expert! Science education researchers want to understand how and in what ways people learn about science—both formally and informally—throughout their lives. We are also curious about why some people engage in science in informal ways while others do not, and what benefits go beyond the acquisition of knowledge.

For example, in one study we had zoo and aquarium visitors wear GoPro cameras during their visit to understand how people relate the experience to their own lives and what they take away with them. In another study, we investigate how authenticity affects science learning. For example, can I learn as much about space rocks by holding a plaster replica of a meteorite compared to a real part of a meteorite that fell from space?

More recently, researchers have focused on how people relate their experiences across time and space. We sometimes refer to the relationship between formal and informal science learning opportunities as the “STEM Learning Ecosystem” (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). The STEM learning ecosystem is basically all the different opportunities available to a person to engage in STEM. It includes social networks, places, and spaces specifically designed for STEM engagement, as well as experiences where STEM engagement may be somewhat secondary, such as hiking in the woods or watching a science-rich Hollywood movie.

Take this example: My nephew watches the children’s show Dinosaur train, then reads a book about dinosaurs. He then visits the local natural history museum where he talks to a curator about a dinosaur exhibit. On the way home we talk about dinosaurs and I share a story about finding a fossilized mollusk on the beach. Next summer we will visit a dinosaur dig site on our way to Yellowstone. All of these individual experiences are part of my nephew’s personal journey through the STEM learning ecosystem.

In recent years, science education researchers have taken new approaches to studying STEM learning ecosystems, from mapping opportunities in a region to understanding how people’s interest in STEM grows and changes in both formal and informal settings.

“For a long time, skeptics wondered if there was any benefit to visiting a science museum or watching a science documentary,” says my colleague Martin Sturksdyk, director of Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center. “But when we can track how people connect these STEM engagements, we can better show their cumulative effect.”

Understanding how people participate in the seemingly one-off opportunities that make up the STEM learning ecosystem can help educators and community leaders make informed decisions about how to foster new ways to connect learning in the community and across time. But studying the ways in which people engage in the vast STEM learning ecosystem is challenging. “People have a hard time connecting their experiences,” Storksdieck explains. “Until now, it’s been nearly impossible to simply observe what people do next, that is, how they follow one STEM engagement with another.” is an ambitious, innovative effort to bridge this gap, show us how people across the country are connecting everyday science experiences to their lives, and show us where there may be “deserts of STEM engagement” that need more opportunities to discovery of science.

Science near me and science near you provides a platform for people to find science learning opportunities in their communities and online. But on the other side of this platform, it enables researchers to see how people find and engage in informal science and begin to better understand how learning accumulates for different people over time.

This means that as Science Near Me visitors browse the site looking for opportunities to engage with science, they are also contributing to research in science education!

“The proverbial breadcrumbs are now electronic fingerprints that we can use to better understand how people maneuver their own STEM learning ecosystem,” said Joe E. Heimlich, senior director of research at the Center for Research and Evaluation of The Center for Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio.

“People go through life learning in everything they do,” Heimlich says. “Science near me opens the door to all kinds of useful and fascinating questions to explore.”

We see many important ways we can help society with this research. Understanding more about community learning patterns and structures can provide local organizations, policymakers, and educators with guidance on how to better connect the public with meaningful science.

On a more personal level, Science Near Me supports me as an aunt, finding fun and educational activities for me and my nephew, and in my profession as a researcher in science education.

I invite you to feed your curiosity and find the next step in your learning journey with Science Near Me—and help science education research while you’re at it. Now it’s your turn: Go explore to discover which science is near you!

Kimberly Preston is a science education researcher at Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center, studying everything from conservation education at zoos and aquariums to polar workforce development. While earning a master’s degree in environmental education, she discovered her passion for understanding how people connect with and learn from nature through outdoor recreation. Her weekend tool kit includes a pair of binoculars, a bird identification guide, hiking boots and a sketchbook.

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