Yesterday, the National Governors Association released an issue brief outlining the benefits of informal science education-- hands-on, group-based programs led by museums or after-school clubs. (Full disclosure - the Noyce Foundation funded the writing of this brief, and the governors endorsed it.)
The brief cites research showing that such programs (1) increase student confidence, interest, and achievement in mathematics and science, and (2) increase student interest in science and technology careers. To demonstrate such effects, programs usually have to operate over time. Kids who participate in clubs or summer programs often attend over more than one year. Other ties they attend yearlong programs at a museum, zoo, or university. Just as important are professional development programs that help teachers lead hands-on experiments and science projects, and programs where museums or research institutions bring expertise, resources, cool equipment and demonstrations directly to the classroom.
The report goes on to describe a number of different groups and programs, from Techbridge for girls to the National 4H science initiative to the St. Louis Science Center's YES program and Dean Kamen's FIRST robotics league. Each program described has evaluation data supporting its effectiveness.
Wrapping up, the brief concludes with four recommendations for state executives:
(1) Make informal science education a key part of their agenda to improve STEM learning. Include informal science representatives on key advisory groups and encourage STEM councils to identify and promote programs with demonstrated results.
(2) Continue to support quality informal science programs in the state, such as those offered by museums and science centers, recognizing that such support will often be matched several times over by public donations and grants.
(3) Encourage districts to support project-based STEM learning in after-school environments.
(4) Get the STEM Council or state education agency to create an online catalogue of informal science activities and their program evaluations, for use by schools, teachers, parents, and students.
There's a lot more of value for parents and educators in the brief itself. I encourage you to read it here. Or read the Education Week article about it here.