Published: Oct. 20, 2017

Informal Learning bannerCU Boulder alumna to kickoff informal learning series

Recognizing that the average American will spend 95% of their time outside of the classroom, a new lecture series will spotlight the science of informal teaching and learning and the important role informal learning plays in our lives.

The innovative Learning in Informal Settings settings begins Thursday, Oct. 26 in Paleontology Hall of the CU Museum of Natural History. Co-sponsored by the School of Education and the CU Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado Boulder, the series will explore learning as a continuous, cumulative process and the variety of settings where learning takes place, from museums to libraries to nature centers and more.

“Across lifespans, people spend far more of their waking hours learning outside of school than inside school,” says Joseph Polman, associate dean for research and professor of learning sciences and human development in the School of Education. “The informal learning experiences that people choose—whether at home, in community-based organizations, at museums, or other educational organizations—contribute to their lives and to our culture. 

“This series will help us look closely at how people learn in these settings and how to improve the design and organization of these important learning opportunities.”

The first seminar will be “Leveraging Multiple Forms of Expertise in Museum and Community-Based Collaborations” led by Molly V. Shea, assistant professor at San Francisco State University, at 3:30 pm, Paleontology Hall. Shea is a two-time alumna of CU Boulder earning an MBA in 2010 and in 2013 earning a PhD in Learning Sciences and Human Development from the School of Education, where she worked closely with Susan Jurow to examine new forms of learning and expertise in the local food justice movement.

We caught up with Shea to learn more about her work as part of the Exploratorium in San Francisco and a STEM-focused making and tinkering afterschool program, the Harveston Science Workshop (HSW), aimed at transforming the science education experiences for young people historically underrepresented in STEM disciplines.

Molly Shea

Molly Shea, assistant professor at San Francisco State University

 Q. Tell us about your afterschool making and tinkering program, the Harveston Science Workshop (HSW).

Since 1997, HSW has been a place designed for predominantly Latina and Latino youth from working-class families to: conduct science experiments, create design projects, and build an alternative learning community. The aim of the workshop is to “inspire and engage youth in the everyday wonder of science in the world around them.”  

Educators collaborate with approximately 600 young people each week to build bikes from recycled materials, design electric toys, conduct inquiries about their natural habitat, puzzle over how animal bones fit together, or construct a bird house to study birds with their families in their backyards. 

HSW educators created a program that encourages young people to use everyday materials and curiosities to produce scientific knowledge. However, these interactions are also connected to larger sociopolitical struggles in their community. Our research explored how educational designs and pedagogical practices addressed young people’s experiences of marginalization in science. 

Q. What have you learned from the community in the program and how does it contribute to your research?

I have learned so much from the community of educators and the larger community in which HSW is located. I have a paper under review at Science Education about all that I have learned. There is so much to be said about the expertise of community educators. The educators use a deep understanding of community history to guide their work with young people. They listen for openings in young people’s stories to explore science on young people’s terms. They use knowledge of community resources to transform community spaces to help young people be seen and valued for their work. There are many more lessons that will be shared in depth at my talk on Oct. 26.
Q. Your talk will launch the Informal Learning Series. As an educator and learning scientist, why is informal education an important part of learning?

Informal learning environments are unique place to re-understand and reframe how we understand what learning is and how people organize when learning is not loaded with school references. Some of the questions that I like to ask have to do with issues of power and community transformation. For example, informal places of learning can help us understand how people build knowledge and expertise as they create more consequential practices in their communities. Informal learning also offers important opportunities to study how people learn as they move across contexts. How do people use resources and ideas across the places where they interact? 

Broadly my work contributes to a better understanding of how people learn in distributed networks that are socially, culturally, and historically organized. There are plenty of places within schools to look at these questions as well, but informal learning allows us to think more carefully about when, why, and how people organize and expand their practices. 
Q. Finally, we are proud that you are an alumna. How did your experience at CU Boulder help prepare you for your innovative work now?

The School of Education at CU Boulder transformed my understanding of myself and the world around me. In particular my work with Professor Jurow changed the way I understand learning and what it means to conduct ethical and equity-oriented research. The opportunities that the doctoral program provided and the incredible professors who tirelessly read my work and forced me to question things I had previously taken for granted allowed me to ask rigorous questions and act with consciousness as I pursued work with community educators, students, and families. I am indebted to the professors and the school for the transformative education that I received at CU Boulder.

Learning in Informal Settings | 3:30 pm | Paleontology Hall | CU Museum of Natural History

All lectures are free and open to CU alumni, students, educators, and the public.

Fall 2017:

  • Oct. 26, Leveraging Multiple Forms of Expertise in Museum and Community-Based Collaborations
    Molly Shea, Assistant Professor, San Francisco State University
  • Nov. 9, Understanding People’s “Learning on the Move” in a Museum
    Rogers Hall, Professor and Chair, Dept. of Teaching & Learning, Vanderbilt University, 
    Ben Rydal Shapiro, PhD Candidate, Vanderbilt University

Spring 2018 Speakers:

  • Carrie Tzou, Associate Professor, University of Washington, Bothell
  • David George Haskell, Professor, Sewanee, University of the South and Pulitzer Prize finalist
  • ​Ananda Marin, Assistant Professor, UCLA

All talks will take place in Paleontology Hall of the CU Museum of Natural History, located at 15th and Broadway in the Henderson Building.  For information about the series, parking, and program updates visit