SENCER Synergies with Informal Learning


SENCER offers a model for integrating aspects of formal and informal learning. This article explores their intersection in the SENCER context, emphasizing the common learner focus and role of relevance in stimulating interest. The SENCER-ISE project further strengthens connections through Higher Education-Informal Science Education partnerships that can bring complementary expertise as well as greater access to the community through public settings and audiences. Applying the lessons learned from the planned evaluation studies will be critical to identifying effective practices and achieving impact at increased scale.


This article explores connections between SENCER and informal science education (ISE), expanding on a talk that Alan Friedman invited me to present at the Fourth Annual Science Symposium co-sponsored by SENCER, the National Center for Science & Civic Engagement, and Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Liberal Arts and Society (Ucko 2009). At that time, I served as deputy director of NSF’s Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings and had known Friedman for many years, since we both had spent most of our careers in the science center field. I had been impressed by similarities between the SENCER approach to aspects of informal learning (and was the “fellow at the National Science Foundation” [Burns 2011a, 2] who helped make a connection). Friedman was instrumental in organizing the subsequent SENCER-ISE invitational conference, which in March of 2011 brought together representatives from both communities to discuss potential synergies. Funding was provided by NSF, and Friedman helped to obtain a Noyce Foundation grant for the conference and then for an initial 10 Higher Education-ISE partnerships. I currently serve as an external advisor, along with Marsha Semmel, on the SENCER-ISE project built upon his legacy.

Informal learning can be defined in a variety of ways (Ucko and Ellenbogen 2008, 241). In general, it is “free-choice,” self-directed, and socially mediated. Table 1 lists various attributes of informal learning in contrast with those of formal learning, to identify key differences. Although context dependent and realized to varying degrees, the extremes are represented here in order to accentuate distinctions. This caveat applies both to the “informal” and to the “formal” descriptors, particularly as they relate (or not) to varying modes of higher education.

TABLE 1. Contrasting Attributes of Formal and Informal Learning

Formal Learning Informal Learning
Compulsory; required Voluntary; “free choice”
Content focus Learner focus
School-based Ubiquitous; museums, media, etc.
Children & youth All ages, lifelong
Set times Any time
Extended time periods Episodic; often brief
Large peer group setting Individual, family, or small group
Regular assessment No tests or grades
Teacher-directed Self-directed
Cognitive emphasis Affective emphasis
Extrinsic motivation Intrinsic motivation
Transmission model Contructivist; personal meaning-making
Lecture-based Experimental; hands-on; interactive
Favored learning style Flexible learning styles
Serious Enjoyable; engaging; fun
Goal-focused Exploratory; open-ended
Curriculum-based; “push” Interest-driven; “pull”
Constrained by curriculum Unlimited; open-ended; flexible
Predetermined content or focus Any content or focus
Disciplinary content Interdisciplinary; transdisciplinary
May appear irrelevant Personally relevant


Connections with Informal Learning

In reviewing outcomes of the SENCER-ISE conference, Friedman and Mappen note that the emphasis on civic engagement provided the “glue” that brought the two communities together (2011, 33). That focus takes advantage of certain strengths of informal learning, several of which they identified, based on an abridged table from the 2009 presentation and the “strands” of the Learning Science in Informal Environments report (NRC 2009). The discussion that follows extends that analysis through comparison with key features of SENCER. (It cannot capture all points of intersection with informal learning, however, since it is likely that the diversity of SENCER courses and settings create additional connections beyond those identified here.)

Interest’ is a driving force in the SENCER ideals” (Burns 2011b, 9).

Because informal learning is generally voluntary and self-directed, it is motivated by personal interest. The SENCER approach offers a similar means to stimulate student interest and engagement by making connections to “matters that are real, relevant and of vital interest to citizens in a democracy” (Burns 2012, 7). A number of the SENCER-ISE partnerships, for example, involve students in citizen-science activities in which they gather and analyze data related to local, national, or international issues.

They [SENCER courses] are essentially interdisciplinary, so they are more like the world itself than a typical undergraduate curriculum” (Burns 2011b, 8; see

In general, informal learning experiences are similarly interdisciplinary, since they tend to emphasize real applications and issues rather than particular disciplinary content. Even “Exploratorium-type” science exhibits may involve multiple disciplines, because they are phenomenon based. (For example, the Heat Camera, which reveals the infrared radiation emitted by a visitor’s body, demonstrates aspects of both physics and biology.) Like SENCER activities, they are typically “authentic experiences” (Burns 2011b, 8).

SENCER courses and projects that have been designed with students helping all the way just tend to be better. They are more likely to capture something that truly matters to and interests students…. Students can make vital and valuable intellectual contributions to course content and design, development, and refinement” (Burns 2012, 9).

This aspect of SENCER emphasizes its focus on the learner and the value of involving the target audience in the planning and implementation of the educational activities. That same focus is central to developing informal learning experiences that successfully engage their target audiences and achieve the intended impacts.

It helps to tie assessment to pedagogy (including reflection on course activities like service learning, research, etc); assess frequently and at intervals short enough to enable you to make ‘repairs’ and mid-course corrections…” (Burns 2012, 10).

Although informal learning is not assessed as in formal education, evaluation plays a related role. Front-end evaluation seeks to determine audience background and interests to guide the planning of the informal learning experiences. Formative evaluation, through such activities as testing prototypes or a pilot program, obtains feedback at early stages of development when changes are relatively easy to make. Summative evaluation seeks to determine the outcomes and learner impacts of the experiences, whether intended or not. The results can help to improve future development and to address institutional or funder needs. Remedial evaluation is sometimes carried out after completion to make improvements in ongoing programs or exhibits.


SENCER offers a model for synergistically integrating aspects of formal and informal learning to take advantage of the strengths that each offers. The formal course component, for example, brings greater depth than may be possible in informal settings, along with more extended periods of time for the learning activities. In the SENCER-ISE project, formal-informal connections are further enhanced through the active participation of ISE-related organizations that partner with faculty members at a college or university (Table 2).

TABLE 2. SENCER-ISE Partner Organizations

Higher Education Partner ISE Partner
Antioch College Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center
Brooklyn College – CUNY Gateway National Recreation Area
Cornell University Sciencenter
Fordham University Wildlife Conservation Society
Hamilton, Hope, and Oberlin Colleges Green Science Policy Institute
New Mexico EPSCoR New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science
Paul Smith’s College The Wild Center
Raritan Valley Community College New Jersey Audubon Society
St. Mary’s College of California Lindsay Wildlife Museum
University of Connecticut Connecticut Science Center

In addition to bringing expertise in communicating with the public, partners can also provide a setting and access to an audience and larger community.

Typical higher-education-based ISE relationships focus on communicating aspects of current research to the public through museum programs or exhibits, citizen science, science festivals, science cafés, and other informal learning experiences. Examples range from outreach efforts by individual scientists to national initiatives such as the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network. Because most of the SENCER-ISE partnerships add a course component, they also create the opportunity to transform undergraduate instruction by strengthening the learner focus through the means previously described. Movement between the different settings and cultures of the formal and informal partners may further enhance student learning through the process of boundary crossing (Akkerman and Bakker 2011). For example, carrying out research that traverses both Cornell’s Early Childhood Cognition Lab and the real-world Sciencenter can provide students with a perspective not possible within either domain alone.

In addition, these partnerships offer valuable professional development to the participating faculty and ISE participants, as well as introducing new college student and public audiences to ISE institutions (Friedman and Mappen 2012, 137–139). Perhaps most importantly, they can impact the community in meaningful ways through the activities carried out by students. For example, the Antioch College/Glen Helen project will help reforest a public nature preserve, while the Paul Smith’s College/Wild Center will address regional climate change issues by targeting gatekeepers.

Each partnership will carry out its own evaluation to assess the process and outcomes. In addition, a summative evaluation conducted for the project overall will focus on lessons learned from the collaboration between formal and informal partners. Longer-term success will be determined in part by the extent of institutionalization of programs and relationships that lead to sustainability. Findings from these and other studies will be critical to identifying effective practices and steps necessary to increase the scale of this initial undertaking and to amplify its benefits. Addressing SENCER, Wm. David Burns has suggested that “creating and sustaining a community of practice is entirely within our capacity and is necessary to achieving larger scale reforms” (2012, 8). Such a community would benefit greatly from including informal-learning practitioners and researchers among its members. Alan Friedman would have been the first to participate.

About the Author

In addition to consulting at Museums + more; David Ucko co-chairs a National Research Council study on communicating chemistry in informal settings and serves on the Visitor Studies Association board. Previously, he was deputy director for the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings and head of Informal Science Education at NSF, founding president of Kansas City’s Science City at Union Station, deputy director of the California Museum of Science & Industry, vice president of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and a chemistry professor at Antioch College and City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry from M.I.T. and his B.A. from Columbia College.


Akkerman, S.F., and A. Bakker. 2011. “Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects.” Review of Educational Research 81 (2): 132–69.

Burns, W.D. 2011a. “The SENCER Context.” In Proceedings of Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities-Informal Science Education Conference. Jersey City, NJ: Liberty Science Center, March 6–8, 1–3. (accessed April 13, 2015).

———. 2011b. “‘But You Needed Me’: Reflections on the Premises, Purposes, Lessons Learned, and Ethos of SENCER, Part 1.” Science Education & Civic Engagement 3 (2): 5–12.

———. 2012. “‘But You Needed Me’: Reflections on the Premises, Purposes, Lessons Learned, and Ethos of SENCER, Part 2.” Science Education & Civic Engagement 4 (1): 6–13.

Friedman, A.J., and E. Mappen. 2011. “SENCER-ISE: Establishing Connections Between Formal and Informal Science Educators to Advance STEM Learning through Civic Engagement.” Science Education & Civic Engagement 3 (2): 31–37.

———. 2012. “Formal/Informal Science Learning through Civic Engagement: Both Sides of the Education Equation.” In Science Education and Civic Engagement: The Next Level, 1121:133–43. ACS Symposium Series 1121. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society.

National Research Council (U.S.). 2009. Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments. P. Bell, B. Lewenstein, A.W. Shouse, and M. Feder, eds. Board on Science Education, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Ucko, D.A. 2009. “Informal Learning & Synergies with Formal Education: NSF Perspective.” Presented at the Fourth Annual Science Symposium, Preparing Undergraduates of Tomorrow: How Informal Science Education Experiences Can Improve College Readiness, Franklin & Marshall College, Center for Liberal Arts and Society, Lancaster, PA, October 17. (accessed April 13, 2015).

Ucko, D.A., and K.M. Ellenbogen. 2008. “Impact of Technology on Informal Science Learning.” In The Impact of the Laboratory and Technology on Learning and Teaching Science K-16, D.W. Sunal, E.L. Wright, and C. Sundberg, eds. Research in Science Education. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 239–266.


Author: seceij

Chuck Gahun is the content manager for the SECEIJ website and technical consultant for NCSCE

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