There have been calls for greater collaboration between formal and informal sectors in order to take advantage of increased choice available to the informal sector and address criticisms of formal science education. This study created such a ‘third space’ for science education, linking an informal university educator with schools to increase student choice in science lessons using the community of inquiry pedagogical model. Studying learning in free choice environments is challenging due to the range of possible outcomes. Participant observations, questionnaires and interviews involving 507 students aged 11–14 were carried out in 20 UK state schools. Data were analysed using Falk and Dierking’s Contextual Model of Learning which allowed consideration of the totality of students’ experiences whilst acknowledging the complexity of free(er) choice spaces. Findings indicate that this space allowed students to exercise choice and control over learning, and to connect science with their prior knowledge and interests. However, choice also acted as a barrier to learning where students lacked sufficient prior knowledge or were uncomfortable with content. The role of peers and facilitated discussion was important. This indicates that there are benefits to opening up spaces for free choice learning in school science using the community of inquiry model.
- School/university interface, science outreach, informal education, dialogue