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Summer is a good time for informal education

journal contribution
posted on 2014-12-01, 00:00 authored by Kieran LimKieran Lim
Students look forward to summer because usually it means a break from formal and non-formal education. Formal education refers to education in formal educational institutions, such as pre-schools, primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions and other registered training organisations. Non-formal education refers to organised educational activity outside the established formal system, that is intended to deliver a defined set of learning objectives to an identifiable group of learners (Chemistry in Australia, October 2014, page 33). Informal education refers to all learning outside the formal non-formal educational system; informal education is often associated with life-long learning as it can include reading non-fiction books and scholarly articles, viewing documentaries and other informal professional development. Informal education can also include travel to other countries and climates. Social constructivist theory maintains that learning occurs in social settings; conversely, most learners are limited by their cultural experiences. For example, Australian students have little first-hand experience of sublimation, but this is commonly observed in very cold climates when frost, ice or snow apparently “disappears” as it sublimes to water vapour, without passing through the liquid state. A favourite summertime activity is to go to the movies, especially in air-conditioned cinemas on a hot day or night. Watching movies are a form of virtual travel, and many educators make use of movies to illustrate chemistry concepts. Some movie producers want a sense of authenticity and work hard to get the details right, even though those details might be incidental to the main plot. For example, in Centurion, Roman soldiers fail in their rescue attempt, and are taunted by the Picts for stupidity -- they would have succeeded if they had only realised that metal become brittle in the cold. Another favourite example comes from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when Bilbo, Samwise and Gollum are crossing the Dead Marshes and see lights that appear to float over the Marshes. These wills-o-the-wisp have been known for centuries, and was the subject of a debate between George Washington and his officers. Washington and Thomas Paine, “the Father of the American Revolution”, believed that the lights were due to a flammable gas released from the marsh, while Washington’s officers believed that the lights were due to a flammable liquid on the surface of the marsh. On Guy Fawkes Night, 5 November, 1783, the Washington-Paine experiment showed that when mud at the bottom of a river was disturbed, bubbles of flammable gas rose to the surface of the water. (Unknown to Washington and Paine, Alessandro Volta had performed a similar experiment in 1776.) A problem with informal education is that it is often unguided. Students may find it difficult to discern the difference between scientific reality and an artistic distortion of reality in novels and movies. Educators have an important role here. If we only teach facts and concepts, learners will be dependent on a teacher. If however, we foster students’ curiosity and ability to exercise judgement, they will be able to learn for themselves, not just during the summer, but also in every season of every year.



Chemistry in Australia


Chemistry in Australia


Dec 2014 - Jan 2015


38 - 38


Royal Australian Chemical Institute


North Melbourne, Vic

Resource type

journal article





Publication classification

C Journal article; C4 Letter or note

Copyright notice

2014, Royal Australian Chemical Institute


journal article

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