Academic journal article Journal of Technology Studies

Value of Informal Learning Environments for Students Engaged in Engineering Design

Academic journal article Journal of Technology Studies

Value of Informal Learning Environments for Students Engaged in Engineering Design

Article excerpt


Education in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields has many economic and national security implications, making the issue of STEM education reform and access one of national concern (Kuenzi, 2008). At the forefront of this reformation is the need to attract a larger and more diverse student population to STEM fields (Chubin, 2005). The challenge of meeting the nation's demands for increased diversity is exacerbated by the inability of formal learning environments to introduce underrepresented students to STEM professions (Denson, 2012). This highlights the importance of informal learning environments and Martin (2004) suggests informal settings will be instrumental in the reformation of STEM education. Currently, there is a dearth of literature articulating the ways in which these informal learning environments are having an impact on students in the STEM fields.

This paper reports on a focus group interview conducted with students from an engineering summer camp held at a research-intensive institution in the southeast. The focus group interview helped identify the value of an engineering summer camp for students interested in STEM fields. In an effort to identify aspects of the informal learning environment that were particularly beneficial for students, the researchers felt it appropriate to utilize qualitative research methodology to satisfy the goals of the study.


It is estimated that during the school years of students, 85% of these learners' time will be spent outside of a classroom (Gerber, 2001). This illustrates the importance of providing opportunities for learning that are outside of the traditional learning environment. Informal learning environments provide these opportunities and have been an integral part of education for years (Martin, 2004). The continued study of informal learning environments may provide insight into ways the nation can begin to attract a STEM workforce that is more diverse. The merits of informal learning environments are known, yet the research is not clear on how such experiences benefit students (Gerber, 2001). Beyond anecdotal reporting on informal learning environments, little has been reported that documents the capacity of informal learning environments to influence learning and student development. The researchers' efforts are part of a broader study, which investigated and measured the impact of informal learning environments.


Informal learning environments can be categorized into three major settings: (a) everyday experiences, (b) designed settings, and (c) programmed settings (Kotys-Schwartz, 2011). The informal learning environment framing this study was a one-week summer engineering camp held at a research-intensive university in the southeast and is categorized as a programmed setting. Programmed settings are characterized by structured programs that take place at a school and/or community-based organization and science organizations (Kotys-Schwartz, 2011). Founded in 1999 as an extension of the Women in Engineering Program, the engineering summer camp featured in this study offers a week-long engineering camp each summer for 9th-10th grade male and female students interested in experiencing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.


Participants for this study attended a multidisciplinary session for rising 9th and 10th grade students. Student campers must pay to participate in the engineering summer camps, with financial aid provided to those in need. Approximately 90 students were placed in design teams of three students, providing the study with 30 student groups. Participants were not provided remuneration for their participation in this focus group interview study.

Participants were selected for this study using a strategy of purposeful sampling. Purposeful sampling is an effective strategy of sampling that allows for the collection of "information rich" data (Glesne, 2006). …

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