Informal education embraces institutions and activities such as youth groups (4-H, scouts), adult groups (Master Naturalists, AmeriCorps), libraries, galleries, museums, parks, etc. Classroom-based education is often referred to as formal education, while this other intentional learning and teaching is called informal. Practitioners may also make distinctions between informal and nonformal situations, but the term “informal education” has become the more global reference to environments and experiences designed and pursued for learning.
Informal environments encourage experiential and social learning, and so are ideal complements to formal efforts in STEM education. The affective side of STEM--whether people will “like” these fields enough to become familiar with them--let alone to spend the time and effort to develop expertise—depends upon engagement and interest. These are enhanced by social interactions around STEM topics, and by direct personal experiences with STEM activities. Informal education can provide relevant, experiential education along with a framework for individuals, families, and groups of all ages to explore the STEM fields and their importance to society.
VT-STEM has always included informal educators and has been instrumental in sharing methods and ideas between formal and informal education.
Virginia Tech houses Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE), which provides both adult and youth education. VCE’s 4-H is a widely respected youth development program that has taken a national focus on Science, Engineering and Technology education. Virginia 4-H staff were on that curriculum development team. Virginia Tech’s Museum of Geosciences is a charter member of VT-STEM, providing programs, workshops, and support for teachers and the community. And, in 2011, a partnership between VT and the Science Museum of Western Virginia was established to help promote STEM literacy and understanding through informal educational efforts.