2Introduction to Informal Learning

Publication Details

“Most people, most of the time, learn most of what they know outside the classroom.”

—George Tressel (quoted by David Ucko)

When most people think of learning about science, a classroom or laboratory setting comes to mind, students being taught by teachers according to a set curriculum and following a textbook. They picture a formal educational environment. However, children and adults actually learn about science continuously, through a variety of ways and settings such as visiting museums, watching television, or exploring outdoors, by what is called informal education. In this opening session of the workshop, three speakers offered introductory remarks about informal education and effective communication of scientific content. Kirsten Ellenbogen from the Science Museum of Minnesota provided an overview of informal education, David Ucko of the National Science Foundation talked about the connection between chemistry and informal education, and filmmaker Stephen Lyons discussed the changing role of video and films in communicating chemistry. In addition, the speakers specifically addressed the challenges and opportunities for communicating chemistry content to public audiences in informal learning environments.


Kirsten Ellenbogen started the morning off by immersing the group in the volume from the National Research Council (NRC) Learning Science in Informal Environments (LSIE)1 and its companion volume Surrounded by Science (Figure 2-1).2 Ellenbogen discussed the main conclusions and research underlying the reports, the ways in which the field of informal education is starting to use the reports, and the relevance of informal education to chemistry.

Two side-by-side images of covers of National Research Council reports on informal education: Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits (on the left) and Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments (on the right)


Cover images of recent National Research Council reports on informal education. SOURCE: Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, Editors, Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, National Research Council. (more...)

Lifelong, Life-Wide, Life-Deep Learning

Ellenbogen explained that one premise of the report is that learning is lifelong, life wide, and life deep, encompassing formal and informal education.3 Figure 2-2 illustrates this point, showing the significant percentage of time in a person’s life that is spent in informal versus formal education. The blue area, referred to as the “sea of blue” throughout this workshop, represents the time spent in informal educational environments; the black area represents the time spent in formal education.

Spatial graph of the number of formal and informal learning hours of an individual, out of the 16 waking hours, from infancy on one end to adulthood on the other end


Map of human learning, which shows that people spend the majority of their time from infancy to adulthood in informal learning settings. SOURCE: The LIFE Center (The Learning in Informal and Formal Environments Center), University of Washington, Stanford (more...)

Ellenbogen said that one exciting conclusion of the LSIE report was that many opportunities exist to fill the unused educational time and provide an interconnected network of informal learning environments. “There is abundant evidence of learning in everyday environments. . . . That includes settings like museums, experiences like watching a television show.”

Strands of Learning

Ellenbogen explained how the LSIE report emphasizes six strands of learning (Box 2-1). She emphasized that the concept of calling the aspects of science learning “strands” is not unique to this report; it has been used in some other NRC reports. The strand concept reinforces the idea that these aspects of learning are not individual elements that stand alone in informal education experiences. “These are literally strands or threads that are interwoven throughout many of the experiences. . . . In many instances, it is almost impossible to separate out one part of the experience from another part of the experience, to identify which moment in the learning experience relates to which aspect of the learning strand.” Learning is not just about content; it is also about the processes of science.

Box Icon

BOX 2-1

Strands of Science Learning. Learners in Informal Environments Strand 1: Experience excitement, interest, and motivation to learn about phenomena in the natural and physical world.

Another point made by Ellenbogen is that strands 2 through 5 are also in the volume Taking Science to School, which focuses on K-8 learning in school environments. “This was an important part of the LSIE report that was able to show good evidence that there is a strong overlap between what happens in our formal learning environments and what happens in informal learning experiences,” she said.

The difference between the two reports is the inclusion of strand 1, excitement and motivation, and strand 6, identity development, as part of informal education. “It is not to say that [strands 1 and 6] don’t happen in school environments, but they are such a critical and strong part of what happens in informal learning experiences, we pulled them out into their own strands.”

Ellenbogen showed many examples of informal learning from her museum. She emphasized that she only provided a few examples, and there are thousands of research publications and evaluation reports referenced in the LSIE volume. At the same time, she noted that one of the interesting things to come out of the study is there is still a great deal unknown, despite the rich body of research and evaluation in informal science education, She said there is a lot to be learned about effectiveness of different media formats and how they lead to good decision making in people’s everyday life.

One issue in particular she mentioned is a lack of longitudinal studies on informal learning—“of following a learner through school experiences and home experiences and museum experiences and looking at those over time, and the connections between conversations in the home and how they related to conversations back in the museum.” It is still difficult to obtain the larger longitudinal view needed to connect an informal educational experience with the impact it may have on how an individual uses science or pursues a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).

In addition, she said, “we know very little about the cumulative effects. People talk about informal learning experiences being these very particular moments in time [to which] we as complex humans can attach various experiences throughout our life, drawing back many times on information or experiences from decades ago in a very meaningful way. David Anderson at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver has some great examples of this and interviews that he has done with people about their World’s Fair experience, decades and decades after they went to the World’s Fair.”

Ellenbogen concluded by mentioning that there are a number of commissioned papers available, in addition to the LSIE and Surrounded by Science reports, from the National Academies Board on Science Education.4

Questions & Answers

Reflective Experiences

A workshop participant asked if there is a way to design an “ah-ha” moment into the learning environment for children or adults: “For many of us as professional scientists, this is the moment that we treasure, when something finally clicks and you integrate a lot of observations.”

Ellenbogen said that such moments are connected to the reflective needs of the learning experience. She said there is not much evidence in the literature of reflective experiences being integrated consistently into the design of learning environments. However, museums are now incorporating them into exhibits.

For example, the Science Museum of Minnesota is developing “tinkering spaces” or engineering labs “that give learners real questions to grapple with, issues that we don’t exactly have clear answers on.” Ellenbogen said the exhibit is set up as a reflective experience that has focused rings of participation. “On the outer ring it asks some very basic questions and engages you in some exploration of phenomena, but as you move in and go into an area that has to be facilitated by staff, there are actual fabrication tools that allow you to try to design and build something that responds to the question or issue at hand.”

Ellenbogen stated that different media sources are also trying to introduce this type of experience, such as in television or radio segments where they ask questions designed to cause a reflective conversation among the social group who may be watching the video or listening to that radio show. “It is something that is really underutilized in an informal learning experience.”

Science Identity

Bill Carroll asked how children come to identify with being a scientist. He mentioned how some kids seem to look at science and say, “I just don’t think I can do that.”

Ellenbogen mentioned the LSIE report has evidence and commentary on this in a variety of chapters. “If you want to look at the lifetime of the learner, it starts in the conversations and research on adult-child interactions in homes, in family units, and the notion that very early on, conversations position science as something we do or something that we like.”

There have been some insights from interviews with well-known scientists about early formative experiences. For example, many scientists recall being collectors in childhood. However, collecting rocks or other items can be messy, and it takes a lot of time, which is something that is encouraged in some homes but not in others. At the same time, there is little evidence of exactly how those early formative experiences link to a STEM career or developing an identity as someone who does science. She said that this is an area for gathering better longitudinal data.

Ellenbogen spoke of Robert Tai, at the University of Virginia, who has explored the topic of scientists and their formative experiences. She recommended that participants see Tai’s paper titled “Eyeballs in the Fridge”5 in which Tai discusses very distinct gender differences in what adults in STEM careers point to as a formative moment of “here is what I did as a teenager or youth that pushed me or encouraged me to get into this as a career.” The experiences for girls in particular were more about a moment in time that had a particularly affective element to them.

Zero to Five

A question was asked about the type of learning that happens during zero to 5 years old (just a white spot on Figure 2-2). Ellenbogen explained that there is “a significant gap in the science that we know about the development of children at those ages, and what we do as a society to support learners . . . 90 percent of brain development occurs in those years from birth to 5.” At the same time, “if you look at the way we support citizens in our society, there is almost no support, or a negligible amount of support for educating zero to 5-year-olds in a way that works with what we know about brain development in those years.” According to Ellenbogen, formal schooling for kindergarten and up is typically made smaller or cuter or simpler for those under 5. Brain development research indicates this is not how to develop a good learning experience for a zero to 5-year-old. Ellenbogen suggested reading the “Everyday Science” chapter of the LSIE report for more information on education needs of zero to 5-year-olds.

Jeannette Brown commented about early experiences in science. She mentioned that the Chemical Heritage Foundation is collecting video oral histories of women in science, and Brown is also collecting oral histories of African-American women in science. Another resource for oral histories of African-American scientists is the Science Makers,6 available on the History Makers website7 (based in Chicago).

Lifelong, Life-Wide, and Life-Deep Learning

Ellenbogen was asked to clarify the distinction between lifelong, life-wide, and life-deep learning and how each needs to be built into effective informal learning projects. She responded that lifelong learning is the most straightforward concept; “from birth to death, you are a learner, and you go through experiences every day that shape the person you are and the way you live your life and the kind of decisions you make. The life-wide says you have to jump into that sea of blue and look at what the informal learning experiences are, so what is the width of experiences in addition to the length of it. . . . Life-deep learning is something that is emphasized to help people look more in depth at the kind of world view, the kind of values that shape what people believe. It is a very underresearched area of learning.”

The participant then asked, “How do you keep those three ideas in mind when you design something, a learning experience for the museum?”

Ellenbogen explained that museums sometimes do “front-end studies” to find out what the experiences and views of museum visitors are. She stated that “you will see in the Learning Science and Informal Environments text that previous experiences are one of the most influential aspects of what people do and experience when they are in any sort of designed environment. You can design all you want, and everyone walks in with a lot of baggage and things that shape the way they see and interpret and experience anything you have designed. The same thing goes for when you look at how multiple people view the same media program.”

As an example, Ellenbogen discussed how the Science Museum of Minnesota duplicated a study called the “Six Americas”8 that looked at national views on climate change. The Six Americas study found that there is a wide range of knowledge and beliefs about climate change, ranging from enthusiastically supporting and accepting the science of climate change to disbelief and rejection. In the middle there is “a disaffected category of, I just don’t care about this science stuff.”

The museum found that few visitors who took the survey were in the disaffected category, which was lower than the national average in the Six Americas study. It was an expected result though since museums typically attract the science attentive. However, the museum was surprised to find that about 26 percent of visitors surveyed said they do not believe in or accept the science of climate change, which was about the same as the national average.

Research on environmental education shows that values affect a museum visitor’s ability to look at the scientific information presented. The Science Museum of Minnesota is looking at how to shift from influencing to informing. Ellenbogen said many informal learning environments are specifically designed to influence someone’s views or ideas about science. The Science Museum of Minnesota is grappling with the issue of how to inform people with the kind of science experiences and knowledge that they need and help them understand the ways to make decisions about science in their everyday life.

Role Modeling

A participant asked whether there is research on the importance of role models in learning, such as young college women or teenagers leading Girl Scout events, which seem to be very effective in engaging the younger children.

Ellenbogen said the Girl Scouts have good research on this—some is cited in the LSIE report. “The interesting thing is that the modeling happens throughout the lifetime. . . . It is one of the most interesting areas that need to be studied across lifelong and life-wide learning. You have so many different kinds of people in your life who model science experiences. You have everything from the kinds of influences you see modeled in television or other sorts of media environments or in books. You also have modeling that happens in the adult-child relationships. There is a significant amount of peer modeling that goes on.” Ellenbogen mentioned that Dirk vom Lehn at King’s College, London, “has some really great studies of looking at the modeling impact of strangers in designed learning environments.”9


David Ucko provided some background on the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Research and Learning (DRL), which focuses on improving learning and teaching across all ages and all settings, and funds research and development (R&D) grants at about $250 million a year. DRL has four programs, including one focused on informal science education, and is the primary program within the Directorate of Education and Human Resources at NSF that funds furthering public understanding of science and enhancing public science literacy.

Ucko reiterated the point made by Kirsten Ellenbogen—that formal education is critical, “but it only takes up a small portion of one’s life.” He provided a quote from one of his predecessors at NSF, George Tressel: “Most people, most of the time, learn most of what they know outside the classroom.”

Informal learning goes by many other names. Some people call it free-choice learning, experiential learning, or recreational learning. Ucko described informal learning as a pull phenomenon, as opposed to a push phenomenon, because it is driven by the interests of the learner, at a particular time. “It is a voluntary activity,” he said.

Ucko illustrated the appeal of informal learning with a quote from Frank Oppenheimer, the creator of the Exploratorium: “No one ever flunks a museum or a television program or a library or a park.” Ucko spoke of the growth of the field of informal education, which began in the 1970s when the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) was created. ASTC was founded by 16 members in 1971, and today there are 583 member organizations in 45 countries around the world.

Ucko started in this field about 30 years ago at the Museum of Science and Industry, after teaching at Antioch College. His first professional conference, an ASTC conference, had about 50 people in it. Today those conferences now have about 1,500 people, giving another sense of the growth of the field in the last 30 years.

Landscape of Informal Education

Ucko discussed the landscape of informal education, illustrated by John Falk and others in Figure 2-3. It shows many of the communities and organizations that exist within informal learning, across two dimensions: one promoting STEM understanding and the other practicing informal education. Some groups do more of one than the other, and some sit right at the intersection where education is high in both informal learning and STEM understanding. This appears on the diagram in the corner at the left on the bottom and consists of science museums, natural history museums, zoos, and aquariums. Over the years, NSF has funded all of these organizations and communities to varying degrees to improve the field of informal science education. Ucko discussed some of these approaches to informal education within the context of chemistry in further detail.

Graph of STEM activities from high to low informal education format on the x-axis and high to low STEM understanding on the y-axis


Informal STEM landscape. SOURCE: J.H. Falk, S. Randol, and L.D. Dierking. 2008. The Informal Science Education Landscape: A Preliminary Investigation. Washington, D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education. Available online at caise.insci.org/uploads/docs/2008_CAISE_Landscape_Study_Report.pdf (more...)

Modes of Informal Education and Chemistry

Ucko talked in detail about different types of exhibits as a mode of informal education. These include permanent exhibits that stay at a science museum, typically for 5 to 10 years, and then are renewed and replaced; traveling exhibits that stay at a museum for about 3 months and then are shipped to another museum for another 3 months; and mobile exhibits that travel the country in vans, buses, or other vehicles. Ucko noted that chemistry is not highly represented in most exhibits. However, he was able to provide several examples of NSF-funded exhibits. One example, “Chemistry of Life,” was an exhibit at the New York Hall of Science, which still exists and is now called Marvelous Molecules.10

Ucko developed an exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in the mid-1980s, in collaboration with Bassam Shakhashiri and Rodney Shriner at the University of Wisconsin,11 that was based on basic principles of chemistry when applied to everyday life. One example of the many interactive experiments at the exhibit is the electrolysis of water, which “never failed to startle visitors across the hall of the museum when the hydrogen that was formed ignited with spark and created a lot of noise.”

One of the challenges Ucko spoke of in trying to present chemistry in an exhibit is conceptual. “It is hard to get people to go from the macro, from what they can see visibly, to the micro.” Ucko thinks there are also perception issues; chemistry and the word “chemical” are often equated with toxicity.12 There are also turf issues: “Things like forensics may be of interest to people, but they may not associate it with chemistry. Same with biochemistry; it might be more linked with biology than with chemistry—and certainly with nanotechnology there is a similar kind of thing going on today.” There are also many technical aspects to creating chemistry in these environments. “You need to prepare, you need to get rid of waste, you need to have storage and disposal and maintain things. You have got safety and liability issues, cost and training for the people that are involved in doing this.”

Although informal education is becoming increasingly Internet based, he said that TV, radio, and giant-screen films are still important means for reaching people. Two examples of chemistry film projects that NSF has funded recently (both are discussed in detail by Steve Lyons later in this chapter) are:

  1. “Lives in Science,” in 1999, a grant to WBGH Boston for the NOVA program on Percy Julian, and
  2. The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements, in 2009.

Ucko said that grants for learning technologies (e.g., games) and digital and online media are the fastest-growing piece of the NSF funding portfolio. “We now see aspects of what we call cyber learning in almost every project that we fund.” Other areas of informal learning include youth and community programs, which allow time for more intensive personalized learning, unlike an exhibit or digital media setting. After-school programs are probably the most common, but there are also many other targeted kinds of programs.

Also mentioned by Ucko is citizen science, or public participation in science, where the public is involved in making observations, collecting data, and even designing experiments in the real world. This idea started with public participation in bird observations at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in the 1990s.

NSF funds Communicating Research to Public Audiences awards through the Informal Science Education Program. This program allows principal investigators to use part of their research grants to create public learning activities. One example from an NSF Chemistry Division (CHE) funded research grant involved a hands-on activity based on flavonoid plant pigments. He also mentioned that within CHE, broader impacts are required as a review criterion, so many of the research grants have some kind of public activity associated with them as well.

In addition to these kinds of publicly oriented activities, NSF has also tried to advance the field directly through professional development in a variety of ways, such as research and working on infrastructure and capacity building.

Project Evaluation

NSF evaluations of the programs it funds are a critical part of the process. Ucko referenced Kirsten Ellenbogen’s talk about front-end evaluation. This evaluation is done at the beginning of a project because of the need to understand who the audience is, what its members are interested in, what they know already, and how to engage them in a particular subject.

He said that while developing a project—when it is still relatively easy to make changes in the project design—it is important to do formative evaluation, which involves pilot testing, creating prototypes, et cetera. After pilot testing, there is remedial evaluation, which looks at how all of the components of an exhibition work together as a whole and helps identify issues in the project that may need to be altered. NSF requires a summative evaluation, which determines whether the project has achieved the impact originally intended. These summations must be posted to a website called Informalscience.org, which currently has about 200 examples of summative evaluations for NSF-funded projects.

To help people learn more about these summative evaluations, NSF funded a workshop and published a report called The Framework for Evaluating Impacts of Informal Science Evaluation.13 NSF created categories to characterize the impacts of informal education projects, including awareness, knowledge and understanding, engagement, attitude, and behavior skills.

Ucko also highlighted key aspects of the LSIE report and its importance to the education community, as listed below:

  1. Broaden the definition of learning. Typically learning is defined as what happens at school. By adding items 1 and 6 (see Box 2-1) to the strands of learning, it “extended the definition of learning beyond the cognitive, to talk about interest and motivation and to talk about identity formation.”
  2. Provide a foundation for future research. The LSIE report is a synthesis of what has been done in research and evaluation across informal learning, drawn from many sub-disciplines. By making this work known and by making recommendations, it provides a foundation for future research and expansion of the data.
  3. Provide a guide for practitioners. It is a way for them to take what has been learned about the research in informal learning and apply it to their everyday work.

Ucko described the Nanoscale Informal Science Education (NISE) Network.14 Now in its fifth year, it is the largest project that NSF has funded in recent years and is a $20 million 5-year effort. It is led by the Museum of Science in Boston, and includes the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and many others. NISE brings together science museums around the country with nanoscience and technology researchers, to develop exhibit elements, programs, public forums, and a variety of products designed to increase public awareness and understanding of nanoscience and technology. Everything is being developed as open source materials, so they can be shared freely and to avoid duplication.

Another NSF effort to fund informal learning is the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education, CAISE.15 It is designed to serve the field overall and to help create a community of practitioners across those different dimensions of informal learning discussed earlier in the landscape study. Ucko believes that these activities are helping the field of informal science education to reach greater recognition of its impact and public engagement, for example:

  • Nature had an editorial recently called “Learning in the Wild” about the impact of informal science education.
  • Professional organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association have an informal science day as a part of their activities every year.
  • Private foundations such as the Noyce Foundation are increasingly funding informal learning.
  • There was recently a House subcommittee hearing on Beyond the Classroom: Informal STEM Education.
  • NSF recently held an Informal Science Education summit that brought together 450 people from across the field.

Ucko provided a few suggestions for how chemists can take advantage of informal education resources and opportunities:

  1. Start with the learner, not with the contact. Start with what is going to engage the learner; or the “hook.” He highlighted the work of Matt Nisbet at American University,16 who has written about framing, which takes into account the audience’s values, knowledge, and attitude when one tries to engage the public.
  2. Create learning experiences that are engaging. Studies from Robert Tai and others show that many scientists knew they wanted to be scientists by ages 12 to 14, so it is important to engage children early. However, Ucko cautioned that it is important that these efforts be done in ways that are not overly promotion oriented.
  3. Build on the research and practice. Ucko encouraged participants to build on the NRC LSIE report and to think about the lifelong learning ecology and the web of experiences that span settings and time. He believes creating a network of people interested in informal learning about chemistry would help leverage the existing infrastructure and resources.
  4. Research and evaluate efforts. Ucko believes that continuing research and evaluation of projects related to informal learning are the only ways to add to the knowledge base and continue support for informal education.

Questions and Answers

Chemistry in Museums

A participant noted that in addition to the list of museum chemistry exhibits that Ucko mentioned having, the Museum of Natural History has one called Science in American Life that is sponsored by the American Chemical Society. The exhibit also has a room of hands-on activities geared toward young kids.

Mark Cardillo mentioned that the Dreyfus Foundation has a seed program that supports museum exhibits in chemistry. He noted that many of the exhibits mentioned by Ucko and others were initiated with a seed grant.

NISE Network

Participant Dr. Rosenberg asked Ucko about the effectiveness of the NISE Network in incorporating chemistry.

Ucko believes it has been effective and has grown substantially. For example, almost 200 science museums around the country have an event each year called Nano Days. The NISE Network creates effective kinds of learning experiences by bringing museums together and linking them to researchers and could be a useful model for other organizations.

Ellenbogen noted that there would be a report17 available September 30, 2010, that summarizes the chemistry experiences in NISE programs and exhibits.

NSF Broader Impacts

Another participant commented that NSF broader impacts grants seem like a good opportunity for collaboration among chemists and informal science educators, because the recipients of these grants are chemical researchers, who “don’t really know that much about how to reach out to the public. Yet there is this whole population of people who do just that, and they are not connected to each other.”

Ucko said NSF encourages chemistry principal investigators (PIs) to collaborate with people from the informal science education communities in advance. Unfortunately, he has heard that PIs will often ask for a letter of support from a museum or education expert the day before the proposal is due to NSF, which does not lead to effective collaboration.

Opportunities for Chemistry in Informal Education

Ellenbogen asked Ucko to speak about the compelling areas of chemistry that might benefit from or be well suited to informal science education. Ucko warned against starting from chemistry and suggested instead planning an informal education activity based on real-world topics that typically interest people, such as environment, food, or health, and then address the chemical aspect. The topics can be identified from front-end testing (as mentioned earlier by Ellenbogen) or by surveying the intended audience before planning an activity.

Mark Cardillo mentioned two new Dreyfus-funded chemistry exhibits, one at the Science Museum in Boston (Figure 2-4)18 and one at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.19 The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in particular has developed a new and exciting multimillion-dollar Science Hall.

Photograph of chemistry and energy related museum exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston, funded by the Dreyfus Foundation


Dreyfus Foundation-funded energy exhibit at the Museum of Science, Boston. SOURCE: 2010. Printed with permission, MJ Morse, Museum of Science, Boston.


Stephen Lyons explained that his interest in science communication stems from producing the program Forgotten Genius (mentioned earlier by David Ucko), a 2-hour biography of the African-American chemist Percy Julian (Figure 2-5), which aired on the PBS NOVA program 3 years ago.20 He explained that “Julian’s scientific career involved a lot of pretty amazing chemistry, including his landmark synthesis of a glaucoma drug called physostigmine, and his pioneering work trying to make cortisone and other steroids available to people at reasonable prices. On the strength of this work, Julian was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He was the first black chemist elected to the Academies.”

Photograph of chemist Percy Julian wearing Spingarn Medal around neck, which he received in 1947


Chemist Percy Julian, winner of the Spingarn Medal in 1947. SOURCE: Percy L. Julian, Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Lyons described how he came away from the project with two lessons about communicating chemistry topics. “Lesson number one was that chemistry can make interesting television.” As he began to look deeper into Julian’s work, he was fascinated by the chemist’s ability to manipulate tiny bits of matter, to work with atoms that he could not see or touch, but was then able to rearrange them to make molecules that could improve peoples’ lives. Lyons described this as “almost magical,” and a very interesting topic for a television documentary.

The second lesson was that chemistry was not being covered on television. “I looked around and I discovered that I essentially had the whole field to myself; no other television producers were interested in making television on chemistry.”

Chemistry Can Make Interesting Television

Lyons has found two things that make chemistry interesting to people: making the program about people, and showing why it matters. This was relatively easy in the case of Forgotten Genius, because Julian’s life story was so compelling: he had a lifelong battle against racism, worked hard to become a chemist, and used chemistry to help people.

Lyons applied what he learned from Forgotten Genius to his new video production titled The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements. This is a 2-hour special focusing on the human story behind the development of the Periodic Table (Figure 2-6).21

Photograph of Nobel Laureate Marie Curie, who was to be featured in a film about important chemists and their discoveries


Marie Curie is one of the personalities to be featured in the Lyons-Moreno film The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements. SOURCE: U.S. National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division.

Many people are familiar with the Periodic Table, because it hangs in almost every chemistry class in the world. However, there is an incredible story that very few people know behind the rows and columns of elements. There was a long quest to discover the elements and to define and explain the hidden order among them. Lyons described this quest as one of the great adventures in the history of science, filled with fascinating characters. For example, there was Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemistry professor whose struggle to organize a textbook led him to devise the Periodic Table in 1869; Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen; Marie Curie, a Polish graduate student who launched the science of radioactivity and used it as a tool for finding new elements; Harry Moseley, a young Englishman who used the new tool of X rays to redefine the very nature of elements, only to die at age 27 in World War I; and Glenn Seaborg, whose discovery of plutonium played a key role in ending World War II and who went on to pioneer the creation of elements beyond uranium in the Periodic Table.

In producing Search for the Elements, the production team plans to use many of the same techniques as in the Julian film. Actors play the key characters, delivering lines drawn from the scientists’ own writings, historians, biographers, chemists, and writers who helped tell the story, and there will be dramatic reenactments of key discoveries with period lab equipment. However, instead of focusing on one scientist as was done in the Julian film, Search for the Elements will be an ensemble drama about the collective effort to understand the nature of matter, about a series of individual discoveries that gradually built a foundation of knowledge.

The program will also show how modern scientists continue to build on that foundation, conducting new chemical research that may affect peoples’ lives in profound ways. For example, the film will highlight the work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) chemist Daniel Nocera. For years, Nocera has been searching for an element that could serve as a catalyst to speed up the splitting of water into oxygen and hydrogen, which could then be used as a clean-burning fuel. Even though the Periodic Table was invented more than a century ago by Mendeleev, it has led to modern chemical research that may one day help the world’s energy problems. Thus, the film relates chemistry to renewable energy, a topic that resonates with many people.

Lyons noted that his production team received a critical NSF planning grant to help this project last year and has also received support from the Dreyfus Foundation, the Haas Trusts, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. At the time of the workshop, NSF was considering his proposal for production funds. The funding has since been received, and Lyons hopes to produce the film in time for broadcast on PBS late in 2011 during the International Year of Chemistry.

In addition to the television program, the project will include an extensive outreach program involving the St. Louis Science Center and its Yes Teens program. The American Chemical Society has pledged to make Search for the Elements the focus of National Chemistry Week, and a special teacher’s edition DVD of the program will be produced with many extra features to help teachers use the human stories behind chemistry to educate their students.

Chemistry, the Neglected Science

Lyons elaborated on the second lesson he drew from the Julian project: little chemistry is highlighted on television. By reviewing the previous 12 years of NOVA programs, he found that the most popular category was “history mystery.” In this category, the producer uses science to explore a historical mystery, such as the Kennedy assassination. However, only one film out of the 190 broadcasts focused specifically on chemistry, which is lower than all other areas of science.

He noted, however, that the data he collected are a few years old, so they do not reflect the most recent programs in the NOVA schedule. For example, there have been a few short pieces about chemistry on NOVA’s summertime magazine program, Science Now, but no full-length films since Forgotten Genius. Also, he did not take into account bits of chemistry in many other films, such as those on molecular biology, global warming, and forensics. Some people might also quarrel with his categorizations, such as two science programs near the bottom of his list on artificial diamonds and the samurai sword, which he categorized as material science. Both concern the structure of matter. However, “if you put them in the chemistry column, chemistry jumps right up over math and botany.”

Lyons reviewed the programs through NOVA’s 36-year history and only found 6 programs out of a total of approximately 690 that were clearly and primarily about chemistry:

  • Forgotten Genius (2007)
  • Race to Catch a Buckyball (1995)
  • Hidden Power of Plants (1987)
  • Plague on Our Children (1979)
  • A Pill for the People (1977)
  • Linus Pauling: Crusading Scientist (1977)

However, he said NOVA is not alone. If other programs, for example, on the Discovery Channel could be searched, “I’m sure we would find the same pattern there. In fact, there is even less chemistry on other networks than there is on PBS.”

Similar results were found when he reviewed other popular media, such as books, newspapers, and magazines. There are recent popular books on chemistry, such as Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten,22 Philip Ball’s H2O,23 and John Emsley’s Molecules of Murder.24 Lyons noted that compared to many other sciences, these writers and books are rare.

Lyons cautioned that his investigation was not a systematic survey of how chemistry is covered by the media. He wanted to get a quick sense of chemistry’s media profile by looking at limited samples of a few key representatives of the various media. Lyons believes it would be useful if somebody could do a more thorough study than this. “Still, the pattern seems clear. Given the huge number of chemists in the world, the amount of science they do, and the enormous impact it has on our lives, the lack of attention from the mainstream media is extraordinary. That is why I call chemistry a neglected science.”

Lyons said he is puzzled by writers’ and TV producers’ avoidance of chemistry. One common explanation is that chemists do not communicate information about their fields effectively. However it is clear from the Julian film that there are many articulate chemists. Lyons also suggested that many people are discouraged by their high school chemistry experiences. “There is some truth in this, because badly taught chemistry has left a lot of people—writers and TV producers included—with a lasting aversion to chemistry.”

Another factor often cited is that chemistry is hard to visualize, because it occurs at the molecular level. This is a handicap for filmmakers, but it has not stopped producers from making films about the Big Bang, black holes, super-strings, and many other equally invisible things in physics.

Lyons thinks the main reason chemistry has been neglected by popular media relates to the types of problems studied by chemists. From the media’s point of view, science is only as interesting as the questions it asks, such as: What is the origin of the universe? What accounts for the rise and fall of ancient civilizations? Can we keep the planet from overheating? What can we learn about ourselves from studying animal behavior? Can we find cures for AIDS or cancer? These are some of the questions pursued by scientists in cosmology, archeology, ecology, biology, and medicine—big captivating questions of interest to everyone. These questions make good subjects for books, articles, and TV programs.

Lyons thinks chemists have not been good about articulating those big questions. Many chemists seem to be focused on fairly narrow technical questions, not the kinds of big questions that captivate a television audience or excite a science writer. When they do have a discovery that might be of great public interest, many chemists are not very good at letting the world know about it. Biologists and physicists may not be any more articulate than chemists, but they are more practiced when it comes to public relations and promoting their work.

Lyons said that chemists are probably not going to change the nature of their research just to get more media attention, nor should they. However, if they are doing research that is potentially of interest to people outside their field, they can frame it in terms broad enough to appeal to the public. They could work with their institutions’ news offices to reach out to the media, as well as put in time working with writers and TV producers to make the stories as accurate and interesting as possible.

Lyons spent the rest of his talk discussing two things that he thinks can have an even greater impact on improving chemistry communications: (1) exploiting the Internet and (2) capitalizing on chemistry’s financial resources.

He explained how the sources for news and science information have changed over the past 10 years. For example, the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press found that television continues to be the main source of news for Americans.25 However, the percentage of those who obtain news from television, newspapers, and radio has declined, while the proportion obtaining news from the Internet has grown dramatically, passing all other sources except for local TV. This trend is also seen in the media sources Americans use to get news and information about science in particular. The Pew Research Center also found that 40 million, or 20 percent, of Americans now rely on the Internet as their primary source for science news. Only television ranks higher at 41 percent.

Lyons said this trend is even more pronounced among young people with broadband access, as shown in Figure 2-7. Among those ages 18 to 29, 44 percent said they accessed most of their science information from the Internet, surpassing television, and far outstripping all the other sources. When asked which news source they go to first for science information, 76 percent of high-speed-connection users in this age group said they turn to the Internet. All other sources combined totaled only 17 percent.

Bar graph of percentage use of different media sources (television, internet, magazines, newspapers, radio, and other) for the age groups 18–29, 30–49, and 50+.


Media sources used by American (home broadband Internet users) to obtain most of their science news and information, grouped by age. The y axis is the percentage of those surveyed. SOURCE: John Horrigan. 2006. The Internet as a Resource for News and Information (more...)

Lyons said, “Clearly if the chemistry community’s goal is to communicate more effectively with young people, the Internet must be part of the strategy.” One potentially powerful tool for exploiting the Internet is video. For example, since its founding 5 years ago, YouTube has come to dominate the market with its eclectic mix of mostly amateur videos and clips from movies, TV shows, and music videos. However, the last 2 years has seen the emergence of another subtler trend, a growing number of high-quality videos created specifically for the Internet. In 2008, the New York Times reported that more and more office workers are using their lunch hours to watch short videos over the Internet, “video snacking.”

He noted that the explosion of Internet video is a tremendous opportunity for the science community. It offers a new channel for delivering scientific research news directly to the public without the barriers imposed by the broadcast media. There have been a few small steps in this direction, simple video podcasts by journals such as Nature and isolated videos produced by museums and others. However, he said video producers and the scientific community have barely begun to tap the promise of this new medium.

Lyons described his effort of 2 years ago, with support from the Dreyfus Foundation, in which his company produced a short online video on the water-splitting catalyst discovered by Dan Nocera at MIT. Because Nocera told him about the catalyst soon after its discovery, Lyons’ company was able to produce the video and have it ready to stream just a few days after Nocera’s paper was published in Science. They posted it on Blip.TV,26 a service that offers free video distribution on the web.

The viewership for the video started small but grew rapidly after being noted by the Chemical Engineering News blog master. Following that reaction, Wired Science gave it a positive review as well. This public exposure seems to be the reason viewership increased twentyfold overnight. All of this Internet traffic moved the water-splitting catalyst video onto the front page at Blip, where still more people viewed it. After 5 days it was one of the most viewed videos on the site.

This experience illustrates one of the main attractions of Internet videos—the ease with which they can be disseminated, Lyons said. This video can now be viewed on many websites, including at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the Dreyfus Foundation, MIT, NSF, and others. Understandably, he said viewer traffic for the video decreased after the initial excitement over the catalyst discovery, yet 9 months later, people were still watching. Lyons estimated that the video has now been seen by 20,000 to 30,000 people. He noted however that this is trivial compared to chemistry-related videos that have gone “viral,” such as the well known Diet Coke and Mentos geyser (ultrasonic soda fountain) video,27 shown in Figure 2-8, which at the time of this workshop had 9 million viewers. He said his effort was not bad for a little video launched into cyberspace with no real publicity, but a series of chemistry videos with a regular home on the Internet where people knew to look for them would probably do much better.

Photograph of individuals creating Mentos and diet Coke geysers in an outdoor setting


YouTube favorite, the “Diet Coke + Mentos” geyser. Mentos candies are dropped in bottles of diet coke soda, causing a rapid-foaming chemical reaction that shoots into the air like a geyser or fountain. Video available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKoB0MHVBvM (more...)

Based on teacher response to the first video he made, Lyons thinks such videos could be widely used in classrooms. He said chemistry teachers are hungry for video sources, particularly those that show chemistry at work today.

In producing this online chemistry video, Lyon’s approach was to treat it like a television magazine piece, yet keep the budget as low as possible. However, he said there are many other potential ways to produce chemistry videos for the web, although there are no standards or rules. Internet video is still new, so nobody knows the best approach.

Lyons encouraged the chemistry community to embrace video and experiment with it to see what works best. He said the Internet offers a way to bypass media gatekeepers and get the content out to audiences that would like to see it. In the process, chemistry can be a real leader, showing scientists in other fields how they can use this new medium to reach young people in creative ways.

Lyons finished his talk by highlighting chemistry’s unique position among the sciences. It is the foundation of a large and profitable industry, which sets it apart from other fields of science. He speculated that if the chemistry community chose to, it could pool its resources to create a fund to bring about greater coverage of chemistry, what he referred to as the “Chemistry in Media Fund.” For example, if 10 donors gave $250,000 a year, it would provide an annual fund of $2.5 million, which could be used to support chemistry communications in all media sources. He said, “The result would profoundly change the landscape, giving chemistry a much higher profile in the popular media than it has now.”

With science journalism in peril, people have begun to explore new business models that would allow it to survive in a different form. One example Lyons gave is the organization Pro Publica,28 which pursues public interest investigative journalism and is supported by a group of philanthropic organizations including the MacArthur Foundation. Another example is a service called Kaiser Health News,29 launched by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Run by a former National Cancer Institute science editor, it provides impartial coverage of health care issues. As the old advertising- and subscription-based business model crumbles, people in the media are looking for new means of support. Philanthropy is emerging as a strong contender. In this new climate, Lyons thinks the media would be receptive to support from the chemistry and media fund, as long as the funds are used to support solid impartial science journalism.

Lyons said that this is a good opportunity for the chemistry community, because it may be the best way to improve public understanding of chemistry and enhance appreciation of the chemical enterprise. He said, “Today many Americans come out of school with both a poor understanding of basic chemical concepts and a negative attitude toward chemistry. The only way the chemistry community can turn this around, short of an overhaul of chemistry education, which is a subject for another day, is to tap the one remaining conduit for science learning, informal education.”

In the first year alone, the chemistry and media fund might support a mixture of chemical communications. Over time, by supporting a wide array of informal science education initiatives, Lyons thinks the fund would do more to enhance public understanding of, and appreciation for, the field than all the image advertising the chemistry industry now invests in, and at a small fraction of the costs.

Lyons said he has spent a lot of time talking with chemists over the last few years, and his sense is that chemists feel neglected by the press. They feel most people do not understand or appreciate what they do. They have a story to tell, just as other scientists do, but for some reason their story is not getting out there, and this bothers them. From his perspective as an outside observer, this seems like an important problem and one the chemistry community needs to confront, understand, and address. He thought the workshop might be an important step in that direction.

Questions and Answers

Jeannette Brown thanked Steve Lyons for the Percy Julian film, which she noted “is the only film that shows African-American chemists.” She mentioned that the ACS Committee on Minority Affairs and the Women Chemists Committee are now working hard to start another film about Dr. Marie Daly, who was the first African-American woman to get a Ph.D. in chemistry. Brown further commented about the need that exists for more materials about other underrepresented minorities, such as Hispanic and Native American chemists, and how useful it would be to have those materials available on the Internet.

Steve Lyons responded that one of the most rewarding things about the Julian project was having the chance, with the support of the Dreyfus Foundation, to go out and interview 60 people who knew Julian. Lyons and his team gathered information about Julian’s life and his scientific career that would have otherwise been lost, making it a very rewarding experience.

Lyons also agreed with Brown that her Daly project would be ideal for the Internet, because more and more teachers are looking online for educational materials. He said if she could help produce a series of short videos about African-American women in chemistry and African-Americans in other fields of science as well, they would be widely used. He cautioned that videos should be kept short though, because that is what most Internet users have grown accustomed to.


David Ucko commented about NSF funding. He encouraged those with good ideas to bring them to NSF. He said, “We can only fund things that we get proposals for. So I would encourage folks to develop proposals for informal science education in chemistry.”

Bill Carroll commented that one of the difficulties in chemistry is counterbalancing the negative images. For example, he said, “If you cure someone it is medicine, if you poison someone, it is chemistry. It is almost as though you have to undo that first.”

Lyons agreed and said the best way he sees to address the problem from the point of view of the media is to continually show how chemistry is used through the stories of individual people. Gradually, it will help people to see chemists in a different way. He said people generally have no idea what chemists actually do in their work, so it would be useful to provide stories of their lives as a series of videos on a television program or an online series of videos. His video about Dan Nocera is a good example of showing the story of a chemist, how Nocera set out working for 20 years to address the energy problem. A series of those kinds of examples would help people to see chemistry in a new and more positive way.

Mark Griep from the University of Nebraska asked about the use of chemical symbols and formulas in communicating chemistry to the public, such as the structure of physostigmine in the Percy Julian film.

Ucko responded that in a museum, visitors come from many different backgrounds. They range from people who know nothing about chemistry and would never recognize a chemical symbol at all, to others who are Ph.D. chemists, so there need to be varying degrees of content that support the experience. He suggested that chemical symbols not be the starting point for engaging the public. He said the symbol is often secondary to what the work of the chemist is really about, so it can be there at some point in the exhibit for those that would understand what it is or those who want to learn more.

Lyons added that it is different in television. In the Percy Julian documentary, the use of letter symbols for chemicals was avoided entirely. There was not a single frame in the entire film that showed a chemical formula. Instead of using symbols, they used a simple ball and stick illustration to help people understand the chemicals. An explanation was provided for the basic steroid structure of physostigmine and how it could be modified by adding and subtracting pieces on the end of the structure. It was a very important concept in understanding Julian’s work, and it was also simple enough for people to grasp. He explained how even if the audience did not understand the details, they could get the idea that the properties of molecule could be changed by adding different pieces in different places.



Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, Editors, Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, National Research Council. 2009. Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


Marilyn Fenichel and Heidi A. Schweingruber, National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


The LIFE Center (The Learning in Informal and Formal Environments Center), University of Washington, Stanford University, and SRI International. 2007. Learning in and out of school in diverse environments: Life-long, life-wide, life-deep. Available online at http://depts​.washington​.edu/centerme/LEARNING​%20LIFE%20REPORT.pdf.


For more information, see www7​.nationalacademies​.org/bose/BOSE_Resources.html (accessed December 27, 2010).


A.V. Maltese, and R. H. Tai. 2010. Eyeballs in the fridge: Sources of early interest in science. International Journal of Science Education 32(5):669–685.


A. Leiserowitz, E. Maibach, C. Roser-Renoug, and N. Smith. 2010. Global Warming’s Six Americas. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change. Available online at environment​.yale.edu​/climate/files/SixAmericasJune2010.pdf (accessed November 5, 2010).


For more information, see www​.kcl.ac.uk/schools​/sspp/mgmt/people/academic/vomlehn/ (accessed November 5, 2010).


For more recent activities, see Shakhashiri’s “Science is Fun” website, www​.scifun.org/ (accessed April 6, 2011).


In this report, chemistry is defined as the science of composition, structure, and properties of substances (chemicals) and the changes they undergo.


For more information, see caise​.insci.org/uploads​/docs/Eval_Framework.pdf (accessed November 10, 2010).


For more information, see www​.nisenet.org (accessed September 13, 2010).


For more information, see caise​.insci.org (accessed November 10, 2010).


For more information, see www​.american.edu/soc/faculty/nisbet.cfm (accessed September 13, 2010).


For more information, see the NISE Network Research and Evaluation website at www​.nisenet.org/catalog/eval (accessed November 11, 2010).


The exhibit is called “Fuel Your Future.” For more information, see the Museum of Science Boston website at www​.mos.org/ (accessed November 11, 2010).


The exhibit is called “Create a Chemical Reaction.” It is part of the larger, recently opened Science Storms exhibit. See www​.msichicago.org/whats-here​/exhibits/science-storms​/the-exhibit​/atoms/create-a-chemical-reaction/ (accessed September 13, 2010).


For more information, see the PBS Forgotten Genius website at www​.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/julian/ (accessed September 10, 2010).


For more information, see informalscience​.org/project/show/1892.


O.W. Sacks. 2001. Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


P. Ball. 1999 H2O: A Biography of Water. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd.


J. Emsley. 2008. Molecules of Murder: Criminal Molecules and Classic Cases. London: Royal Society of Chemistry.


John Horrigan. 2006. The Internet as a Resource for News and Information about Science. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project. Available online at www​.pewinternet.org/~​/media//Files/Reports​/2006/PIP_Exploratorium_Science.pdf. (accessed December 28, 2010).


See www​.blip.tv/file/1144655/ (accessed December 28, 2010).


For more information, see www​.propublica.org/ (accessed December 28, 2010).


For more information, see www​.kaiserhealthnews.org/ (accessed December 28, 2010).