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Washington DC Nano News - Learning Informal Science in Congress: People, Places, and Policy

authored by Margaret Glass

The National Academies report Learning Science in Informal Environments can provide our field a more identifiable and meaningful place at the table of education policy - if we learn how to use it for that purpose. One recent success in this direction is the inclusion of definitions of formal and informal learning in the latest version of S. 1482: the NNI Amendment Act introduced in the Senate on July 21. In January, representatives from ASTC (Sean Smith, me) and the Museum of Science (Patti Curtis, Jason Wellner) met with Brian Rice, chief staffer for Sen. John Kerry. We presented a list of suggested text alterations (originally sent by the NISE Net Pis) that made the references to education more inclusive by explicitly mentioning informal education in the appropriate contexts. These edits seemed justified by the ongoing activity of the NISE Net, including our continued presence in briefings and hearings, and the increasing popularity of NanoDays events around the country. We were unsure how or if these suggestions had been incorporated. Then in May, I received an email forwarded from another staffer on that committee – could we send definitions of informal and formal learning to support the use of these terms in the bill? With reference to the National Academies report, I did. You can see these in Section 12 of the bill: Amendments to Definitions. Even more encouraging, when the rest of the document is searched using the term “informal” there are 7 separate instances where that term appears. Each one of these instances could have represented a lost opportunity for informal learning institutions, in terms of funding for programs or professional development. This is certainly not the first time that museums, science centers, and other informal learning institutions have been explicitly mentioned in a piece of legislation. But to my knowledge, it is the first time we have had the ability to cite a National Academies report that lends credence to a somewhat anecdotal approach to documenting our importance and effectiveness. It is also not the first time this report on learning in informal settings has been introduced to legislators and staffers who are supporters of science education, inside or outside the classroom. A crowd of close to 100 participants turned out to a lunchtime briefing organized by ASTC and the STEM Education Coalition in early June of this year. And an equally large crowd showed up for the official launch of the full publication on June 29 at the Keck Center at the National Academies Building. In fact, through local meetings or conference travel, I have seen discussions of this report in numerous contexts: at the Smithsonian, at NSTA, AAM, twice in DC. How many you have had a chance to hear about or read this report? You can read it online or send the order information in to your CEO or director here. And the text in the NNI act? Stay tuned to hear if it survives the reconciliation process with H.R. 554, or the rumored introduction of a competing version in the works by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson's (R TX) office. We only have until Friday before the summer recess – the one-year anniversary of the stall of the NNI in the last Congress!