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Science Learning+

Collaborative adventures in informal research and practice

Running time: 3 min 47 s

Learning can happen anywhere and at any time. Science Learning+ is an international initiative that aims to understand the power of informal learning experiences inside and outside of school.

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About Science Learning+

Science Learning+ is an international initiative established in partnership with the US-based National Science Foundation and the UK-based Economic and Social Research Council, and in collaboration with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Noyce Foundation.

Science Learning+ aims to make a transformational step to improve the knowledge base and practice of informal science experiences, to better understand, strengthen and coordinate their vital role in science engagement and learning.

To support applicants to find new collaborators and engage with funded projects, we are using the community functionality of informalscience.org. The site is free to join and an opportunity to share ideas, meet new people and stay up-to-date with the scheme.

Aims of the scheme

To strengthen the research and knowledge base by:

  • researching the value and impacts of informal science experiences, especially upon young people aged from birth to 19 years
  • developing a theoretical understanding of the processes which lead to these impacts
  • developing better methodologies to measure the impacts of informal science experiences, especially upon learning and mediation of learning
  • building research capacity in informal science learning.

To bridge the practice and research gap by:

  • increasing partnerships, understanding and influence between researchers and practitioners
  • developing collaborations among institutions and individuals engaged in informal science experiences
  • communicating and documenting the outcomes of research and translating them into practice.

To share knowledge and experience by:

  • encouraging the sharing of knowledge and skills relating to informal science learning - between researchers and practitioners, across different countries (particularly the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the USA), and across different areas of research expertise.

Phases 1 and 2

Science Learning+ grants will be funded in two phases:

  • Phase 1: Planning Grants (2014/15). Short-term Planning Grants of up to £70 000/$112 000 to enable groups of people and organisations in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and/or the USA to meet with each other and develop ideas and strategies. Funded projects are due to start in or soon after January 2015. It may be that applicants in receipt of separate grants coalesce to develop collaborations for application to Phase 2. We may facilitate this process.
  • Phase 2: Partnership Grants (2015/16). Longer-term research programmes of approximately £1.5 million/$2.4 million for up to five years (possibly more for long-term longitudinal studies). While these will typically build on relationships established in Phase 1, successful funding in Phase 1 would not guarantee funding in Phase 2; likewise, Phase 2 would be open to new applicants (and any who were unsuccessful in Phase 1). We aim to fund a number of significant Partnership Grants in Phase 2, with projects expected to start in late spring/early summer 2016.


As funders of informal science experiences and related research, the US National Science Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the UK Economic and Social Research Council, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Noyce Foundation are seeking to better understand the processes underlying science learning and communication in informal settings, and to improve the status, environments and practice of informal science learning. We consider that informal science learning is an integral element of science engagement and is required both to nurture and facilitate the production of future scientists and to ensure that science is part of the cultural fabric of modern societies. Accordingly, we wish to build a stronger evidence base on good practice in informal science learning, its impact, and the design of learning environments.

A recent report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust noted that, although there was no accepted definition of informal science learning, the term commonly refers to the learning that takes place during experiences, outside of the formal education system, that raise awareness of, interest in and engagement with science. These experiences can be supplied by a range of organisations and communities and can take place in a range of settings. Some are clearly intended for the purpose of learning, such as science centres, museums, after-school clubs and university outreach groups, while others have different focuses, such as theatres, music festivals, television programmes and video games. The providers may not necessarily recognise that they are delivering science learning, and the people who choose these experiences may do so for pleasure or out of interest.

There is some evidence to show that informal science experiences stimulate interest in science, as well as an appreciation of its social, cultural and historical context. These experiences can also build learners' knowledge and skills and improve awareness and attainment, either through self-directed or mediated learning or through engagements that bring about a change in attitude towards science. However, we need a more robust evidence base to test and refine these beliefs and we need to establish procedures to identify and understand best practices in a wide range of informal science learning contexts. We also need to understand how informal and formal science learning can best align. Different academic fields could contribute to building this understanding - including researchers in science education, disciplinary sciences (such as mathematicians, biologists, engineers or computer scientists), social sciences, psychology, learning sciences and cognitive science.

Organisations across the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the USA have different experiences and understandings of informal science learning practice and theory and could learn more from each other. We therefore need stronger networks, links and partnerships across the sector, between these three countries and, importantly, between communities of researchers and practitioners.


To be eligible, you must be based in the UK, the Republic of Ireland or the USA. You should be affiliated to an organisation involved in informal learning and/or research.

Projects will not be eligible if they:

  • only involve public engagement activity
  • do not have a genuine partnership between researchers and practitioners.

All eligible projects will be assessed individually on merit and need by a Funding Committee.

Phase 2: Partnership Grants

The final details of Phase 2 will be developed once Phase 1 is underway. The expectation is to support Partnership Grants that would address some key research areas linked to the aims of the initiative and that these partnerships would involve partners both in the USA and in the UK/Republic of Ireland, with experts from more than one academic area, and explore more than one informal learning experience. We would expect these grants to act as beacons for further work and development.

What we are looking for

Funding will support research which comes under the following categories, or which otherwise meets the aims of the programme.

Understanding learning

We would like to build a better theoretical understanding of the extent to which people learn science as a result of informal experiences and how this differs qualitatively and quantitatively from more formally acquired knowledge, skills, practices, interest and identity.

We are interested in exploring how informal learning fits into the wider learning (and educational) environment, in understanding whether and how methods of teaching in informal settings work, and in recognising whether there are informal learning methods which could benefit formal science education.

We would like to explore how people learn in different informal settings and with different practitioners and how the impact of such learning varies with participant characteristics (e.g. age, gender, prior science knowledge and expectations).

Engagement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)

We would like to better understand how informal science experiences can spark people's desire to learn science in formal settings and beyond, convey information about possible careers in STEM, and improve scientific literacy.

We seek to support research that explores potential negative impacts of informal science experiences (e.g. accentuating gender stereotypes or increasing the impact of social disadvantage) and how any such outcomes can be avoided.

Skills development

We are interested in how informal science learning experiences build learners' confidence, social and communication skills, and other inter- and intra-personal skills and competencies, and how these may vary with different participant characteristics and across different learning environments.

We would also like to explore the skills development of practitioners and researchers in informal learning. We are interested in how to build stronger collaborations between informal science educators and science education researchers, especially in understanding how best to enhance practitioners' use of research to improve practice and how best to incorporate practitioner needs into research designs.

Equity, diversity and access to informal learning settings

We would like to investigate how informal science settings particularly attract and engage under-served groups in science learning, including those young people who are not highly engaged in formal learning environments. We are interested in how informal experiences can act as a bridge to engage socially disadvantaged young people in STEM.

Measurement of outcomes

We see the development of common instruments or ways to measure the outcomes of informal learning as essential. We are interested in developing and researching new tools and frameworks to enable the sector to better understand the impacts it has on learners.

We are interested to explore how proximal outcomes from informal learning (such as observations of participants and results from post-visit surveys) are linked to distal outcomes (such as increased attainment and ambition in STEM). Greater understanding of the links between proximal and distal outcomes might enable providers of informal learning to focus their evaluations on the proximal outcomes which are easier to measure.

We would also like to examine the impact of informal science experiences through the exploration of large datasets.

How to apply

Please refer to the eligibility guidelines, application guidelines and grant conditions before submitting your application.

Deadlines and contacts

Phase 1 (Planning Grants) has closed.

The call (solicitation) for Phase 2 applications (Partnership Grants) is expected to open in the last quarter of 2015 - exact details to be confirmed. There will be a single application with no preliminary stage.

We aim to notify Phase 2 applicants of success or otherwise in late spring/early summer 2016.

For UK and RoI applicants, contact us at:

Science Learning+
Wellcome Trust
Gibbs Building
215 Euston Road
London NW1 2BE, UK

T +44 (0)20 7611 8264

For US applicants, please contact the National Science Foundation.

Funded projects

Phase 1: Planning Grants

Details of projects funded by Phase 1 of Science Learning+ (PDF 436KB)

We are funding the strongest proposals which:

  • have a strong research hypothesis or design-based strategy informed by current evidence, with potential to be developed into a collaborative research proposal for Phase 2
  • identify the steps and actions to further refine and develop the research question and methods
  • involve collaborations between at least one researcher and at least one informal science practitioner
  • identify the other partners required to address the research question and the steps to bring them on board
  • demonstrate commitment to the overall aims of the programme and agree to advance these through the sharing of plans and initial findings and participation in workshops
  • are unique in terms of contribution from partners, ambition, credibility and potential to impact the informal science learning sector.

Projects with the lead organisation based in the UK or Ireland (note that these are working titles, not necessarily final project titles):

  • ‘Youth access and equity in informal science learning: developing a research and practice agenda’, led by Professor Louise Archer, King’s College London
  • ‘Enhancing informal learning through citizen science’, led by Professor Richard Edwards, University of Stirling
  • ‘The contribution of natural history museums to science education’, led by Professor Michael Reiss, Institute of Education, London
  • ‘Developing and researching equity-focused across-settings models for integrated art, STEM and society approaches’, led by Lynn Scarff, Science Gallery, Dublin.

Projects with the lead organisation based in the USA:

  • ‘Science Live’, led by Professor John Durant, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • ‘Exploring longitudinal research on out-of-school time experiences in STEM’, led by Robert Tai, University of Virginia
  • ‘Investigating the long-term Impacts of informal science learning at zoos and aquariums’, led by Brian Johnson, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York
  • ‘A collaboration to develop tools for mapping and assessing the impact of STEM experiences across different ecologies’, led by Bradley Morris, Kent State University
  • ‘Move2Learn: Engaging preschool scientists through embodiment and technology’, led by Judy Brown, Miami Museum of Science.
  • ‘Planning a design-based implementation research agenda to investigate digital badges as transformative assessment in informal science learning’, James Diamond, Education Development Center
  • ‘Affinity spaces for informal science learning: developing a research agenda’, Richard Hudson, Twin Cities Public Television
Wellcome Trust, Gibbs Building, 215 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK T:+44 (0)20 7611 8888