Students’ perceptions of STEM learning after participating in a summer informal learning experience

Thomas Roberts, Christa Jackson, Margaret J. Mohr-Schroeder, Sarah B. Bush, Cathrine Maiorca, Maureen Cavalcanti, D. Craig Schroeder, Ashley Delaney, Lydia Putnam, Chaise Cremeans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

128 Scopus citations


Background: Informal learning environments increase students’ interest in STEM (e.g., Mohr‐Schroeder et al. School Sci Math 114: 291–301, 2014) and increase the chances a student will pursue a STEM career (Kitchen et al. Sci Educ 102: 529–547, 2018). The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of an informal STEM summer learning experience on student participants, to gain in-depth perspectives about how they felt this experience prepared them for their in-school mathematics and science classes as well as how it influenced their perception of STEM learning. Students’ attitudes and perceptions toward STEM are affected by their motivation, experience, and self-efficacy (Brown et al. J STEM Educ Innov Res 17: 27, 2016). The academic and social experiences students’ have are also important. Traditionally, formal learning is taught in a solitary form (Martin Science Education 88: S71–S82, 2004), while, informal learning is brimming with chances to connect and intermingle with peers (Denson et al. J STEM Educ: Innovations and Research 16: 11, 2015). Results: We used a naturalistic inquiry, phenomenological approach to examine students’ perceptions of STEM while participating in a summer informal learning experience. Data came from students at the summer informal STEM learning experiences at three diverse institutions across the USA. Data were collected from reflection forms and interviews which were designed to explore students’ “lived experiences” (Van Manen 1990, p. 9) and how those experiences influenced their STEM learning. As we used a situative lens to examine the research question of how participation in an informal learning environment influences students’ perceptions of STEM learning, three prominent themes emerged from the data. The informal learning environment (a) provided context and purpose to formal learning, (b) provided students opportunity and access, and (c) extended STEM content learning and student engagement. Conclusions: By using authentic STEM workplaces, the STEM summer learning experience fostered a learning environment that extended and deepened STEM content learning while providing opportunity and access to content, settings, and materials that most middle level students otherwise would not have access to. Students also acknowledged the access they received to hands-on activities in authentic STEM settings and the opportunities they received to interact with STEM professionals were important components of the summer informal learning experience.

Original languageEnglish
Article number35
JournalInternational Journal of STEM Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, The Author(s).


  • Informal learning
  • STEM education
  • Student learning
  • Student perceptions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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