How Informal Science Education Settings Can Foster Relationships Between Science and Society

February 13, 2023

Dr. Ana Maria Navas Iannini’s research specializes in informal science education (ISE), primarily in the ways in which informal science settings – such as museums, science centres, maker spaces, and science clubs –  foster relationships between science and society. 

Q: Tell us about your background and research. 

A: I am originally from Colombia and completed my Bachelor’s in Biology there, in my home country. My older brother was already a biologist by the time I started thinking about my career pathway. He was passionate about his work, and he was a great influence on me. During my childhood, he shared anecdotes about his studies and courses, reflections related to books he was reading, research projects he was conducting in the field, and research questions that were relevant to him. He used to conduct some experiments at home with frogs and small reptiles, and I liked to help him make observations and register data (e.g., the number of times a frog flexed its legs while swimming from one side to the other side of the aquarium). All those experiences with science, and the stories I heard about his work, made me think that I could also be good at science. Later, while doing my bachelor’s program, and taking different courses related to evolution, biochemistry, ecology and taxonomy, I started to wonder about the relationships between biology, education and society. Why does it matter for other people to learn biology? How can they connect what they learn with their own contexts and experiences? 

These kinds of questions inspired me to do a Master's in Education, with an emphasis on science education in Brazil. Since then, I have been researching that field, examining how different informal education contexts (such as museums, science centres and science clubs) look to nurture relationships between science and their audiences. For example, I have been interested in understanding how museum visitors respond to exhibits about biodiversity, mental health, teen pregnancy, and drug consumption. Currently, I am interested in examining the ways in which science museums have been attentive and responsive to the pandemic. 

Q: How do you think science education settings, including museums and maker spaces, play a role in sustainability and in scientific, social, cultural, and political contexts? 

A: Informal education settings, such as museums, science centres, botanical gardens, and maker spaces, can play important roles in fostering relationships between science and society. They can generate positive attitudes towards science and technology, nurture curiosity about what is around us, help people formulate opinions about science issues with social implications, invite decision-making, and promote participation and agency in science and technology. Regarding their role in sustainability, these institutions have been called to become forces for public good and agents for social and environmental change. To do so, informal education settings have started to expand and renew their mandates, reflect transformative practices, and strengthen allyship with their communities. For example, in the last decades, we have witnessed science museums adding new functions and purposes to their vision and mission statements (e.g., nurturing scientific citizenry). We have also seen critical transformative practices such as: coalitions of museums dedicated to climate justice; galleries delving into complex issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and waste management; exhibits being created through co-design and participatory practices; and dialogic events (such as science cafes and citizen panels) looking to promote conversations about the implication of scientific and technological advancements.  

Q: What role does scientific information play in cities and communities? 

A: During the last three years, the pandemic has shown us the value of reliable sources of scientific information. As we have witnessed, information (and misinformation) about the coronavirus, Covid-19, and more recently, vaccines and vaccine mandates have inundated TV news, newspapers, and social media. In this regard, the World Health Organization created the term “infodemic”, to allude to an excessive amount of information (often misleading) circulating in diverse media. In this context, scientific literacy can play a critical role in helping individuals to navigate the complexities of scientific and technological advancements. When talking about scientific literacy it is important to acknowledge different dimensions and desired abilities linked to this concept. The integration of scientific information into our personal frameworks of understanding is one of them. Other dimensions and skills, however, need to be also contemplated when we refer to scientifically literate citizens, for instance: pondering different pieces of evidence, developing arguments, sharing opinions and perspectives, making informed decisions, and acting. If we come back to the topic of Covid-19, we see how all these abilities are (and need to be) intertwined, as individuals are confronted with the news, fake news, and critical decisions about, for example, vaccines and vaccine boosts.

Q: What can educators implement in these informal spaces to encourage/improve scientific literacy and for women and girls to consider careers and opportunities in science? 

A: Educators, mediators, and facilitators of informal science education settings can help generate curiosity and positive attitudes towards, and interest in science and technology. As I mentioned previously, informal educational contexts, such as museums, science centres, maker spaces and science clubs, have been expanding their societal purposes and considering how equity, social inclusion, and civic scientific literacy can be fostered. As such, initiatives conducted within these settings and inspired by these kinds of social and democratic arguments, have also the potential to enhance the participation of women and girls in science and technology.