Mathematics in Informal Learning Environments: A Summary of the Literature

Mathematics in Informal Learning Environments: A Summary of the Literature

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Research on mathematical reasoning and learning has long been a central part of the classroom and formal education literature (e.g., National Research Council, 2001, 2005). However, much less attention has been paid to how children and adults engage with and learn about math outside of school, including everyday settings and designed informal learning environments, such as interactive math exhibits in science centers. With the growing recognition of the importance of informal STEM education (National Research Council, 2009, 2015), researchers, educators, and policymakers are paying more attention to how these experiences might support mathematical thinking and learning and contribute to the broader goal of ensuring healthy, sustainable, economically vibrant communities in this increasingly STEM-rich world.

To support these efforts, we conducted a literature review of research on mathematical thinking and learning outside the classroom, in everyday settings and designed informal learning environments. This work was part of the NSF-funded Math in the Making project, led by TERC and the Institute for Learning Innovation and designed to advance researchers’ and educators’ understanding of how to highlight and enhance the mathematics in making experiences.1 Recognizing that the successful integration of mathematics and making requires an understanding of how individuals engage with math in these informal learning environments, we gathered and synthesized the informal mathematics education literature, with the hope that findings would support the Math in the Making project and inform the work of mathematics researchers and educators more broadly.

Although this was not a formal synthesis, we collected literature systematically, with a focus primarily on studies since 2000. As appropriate, we reviewed seminal studies prior to this time period, such as Nunes and colleagues’ groundbreaking work on everyday mathematics (Nunes, Schliemann, & Carraher, 1993; Nunes et al., 1993). Sources were identified through conversations with math education experts and systematic literature searches using PsycInfo, ERIC, Google Scholar, and informascience.org. Because there was a particular lack of research on mathematics in designed informal learning environments, we also drew from the “grey literature” in this area, including summative evaluations of museum programs and exhibits. We did not systematically review literature from the fields of adult math learning and education, although this research also offers insights into the nature of mathematics outside of school (e.g., Schmitt & Safford-Ramus, 2000; Seabright & Seabright, 2008). After reviewing identified studies, the Math in the Making team drafted themes and discussed these with the project advisory committee, which included experts in making, tinkering, and informal math learning.

Below we summarize findings from the review, beginning with research on everyday mathematics and followed by research and evaluation studies on math learning and thinking in designed informal learning environments. We conclude with a summary of key themes and a call to action in the hopes that this work will motivate ongoing research to understand and support how adults and children learn about and engage with mathematics outside the classroom and the important role these experiences can play in lifelong STEM learning. 

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2017