Outside Influences: STEM Learning in Informal Settings

15,000: The approximate number of hours I’ve spent learning in a swimming pool over the past twenty-two years of my life. Swimming is not simply a sport in which I participate, but an incredibly rich learning experience that continues to teach me everything from perseverance and time management to how to navigate airports and budget money. For me, the pool is an informal learning environment and one example of a vast number of influential niches of learning outside of the formal classroom.

Despite my current feelings about graduate school, we actually spend the majority of our lives outside the classroom. Our learning doesn’t stop simply because we’ve left the classroom, in fact, some of our most valuable learning experiences occur in informal settings. Experiences outside of school, such as sports and hobbies, each have the ability to significantly influence and shape our interests.

According to the US Department of Commerce (2011), women hold less than twenty-five percent of STEM jobs and, despite our current emphasis of STEM subjects in schools, this number hasn’t changed much in the past decade. As a woman with a background in molecular biology, I am passionate about increasing this number, starting with increasing the interest levels of young girls. Looking back, it was my experiences with informal learning environments, including toys, role models and afterschool programs, that sparked my interest in molecular biology, not STEM subjects in school. If tailored correctly, toys, role models and afterschool programs are informal learning tools that can be used to increase the number of girls in STEM.

When you think about factors that influence your academic and career choices, toys probably aren’t at the top of your list. However, the gendered marketing of toys consequently targets different skill sets towards different genders, which in turn influences future academic and career choices. Many of the skills associated with STEM fields, such as problem solving and hands-on building, are also the skills associated with toys traditionally marketed towards boys (Barford, 2014). Unfortunately, this creates a divide in skill sets between genders at a young age and evolves into one contributor to the gender gap in STEM fields. To change this, it is important to allow our children choice in choosing their toys and expose them to a variety of different toys and, subsequently, a variety of future academic and career options.

Role models provide influential informal learning experiences as well. To help young girls identify with STEM fields, it is important for them to see women role models in STEM positions (Weber, 2011). Parents and teachers are often common sources of role models but what happens when female parents and teachers don’t occupy STEM positions? Luckily, role models don’t just include personally significant people but also people featured in the media. Young girls interact daily with many sources of media including textbooks, magazines, websites, and social media. Seeing and reading pictures and articles of women in STEM positions across these media platforms shows young girls that the STEM subjects they learn in school are

actually used by women in the professional world. Seeing other females who are passionate about STEM shows young girls that they too belong in the STEM world.

Afterschool programs often appeal to students because they provide certain features that differ from formal classroom environments such as informal mentoring, camaraderie, and the ability to apply knowledge learned in school (Denson, Stallworth, Hailey, & Householder, 2015). Due to their informal nature, afterschool programs are unique in the sense that they can be designed to specifically target girls and STEM. Attracting girls to a STEM afterschool program often means creating a unique marketing strategy. For example, Kristin Fontichiaro, a professor in the School of Information, suggests using terms such as “textile engineering” to describe sewing (K. Fontichiaro, personal communication, November 17, 2016). Showing that “textile engineering” and sewing are synonymous facilitates a connection between a commonly known activity and STEM and shows girls that many of the activities they participate in on a daily basis connect to STEM.

We spend significantly more time learning outside of the classroom than inside the classroom and I strongly believe my experiences in informal learning environments played a significant role in shaping my academic and career interests. The ability to choose combined with a variety of available experiences are the most important factors associated informal learning. If tailored to these factors, toys, role models and afterschool programs have the ability to contribute significantly to increasing the number of girls in STEM fields.


Barford, V. (2014). Do children’s toys influence their career choices?. BBC News Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25857895

Denson, C. D., Austin Stallworth, C., Hailey, C., & Householder, D. L. (2015). Benefits of informal learning environments: A focused examination of STEM-based program environments. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, 16(1), 11-15. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.umich.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com .proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/1720061998?accountid=14667

US Department of Commerce. (2011). Women in STEM: A gender gap to innovation. Retrieved

from http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/womeninstemagaptoinnovation8311.pdf

Weber, K. (2011). Role models and informal STEM-related activities positively impact female interest in STEM. Technology and Engineering Teacher, 18-21. Retrieved from https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-272445441.html