Science reasoning at touch tanks: An unexpected opportunity

By Kerri Wingert - August 2015


Kisiel, J., Rowe, S., Vartabedian, M. A., & Kopczak, C. (2012). Evidence for family engagement in scientific reasoning at interactive animal exhibits. Science Education, 96(6), 1047–1070. doi:10.1002/sce.21036

Informal science educators are seeking ways to support scientific reasoning. This study of touch tanks at four different museums found that, although the exhibits were not designed to do so, they supported families in engaging in scientific reasoning practices. Specifically, they engaged family members in making claims, seeking evidence, devising tests, seeking information, testing claims, and challenging claims made by others.

Research Design 

This study answers the research question, “How do family naturally observe and engage with museum exhibits?” The study builds on the work of Gutwill and Allen (2012), who found that museum exhibits could be designed to promote inquiry practices.

Kisiel and colleagues investigated families’ engagement with animals during an experience at a touch tank: a shallow, open pool where visitors can touch different types of marine life. The four aquaria where this study took place included such animals as sea stars, anemones, and even some small sharks and rays. At the four sites, a total of 41 families were observed and videotaped as they engaged with the marine animals, the signs, and the staff. Their behavior and speech were analyzed and coded for the scientific practices related to argumentation: making claims, seeking evidence, devising a test, seeking information, testing a claim, and challenging claims made by others. These practices are emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) and the National Research Council's (2012) A Framework for K–12 Science Education. Despite the practices researchers observed among participants, the staff of the touch tanks did not report engaging with scientific reasoning as a goal of the exhibit. Staff tended instead to report such goals as “conservation education” and development of an “appreciation of biology.”

Research Findings 

Although touch tanks were generally designed to facilitate hands-on learning about animals, the researchers found that they frequently supported families in the scientific practices related to reasoning and building an argument. The study also found that visitors frequently asked questions of the museum staff at the touch tanks and participated in question-answer sessions in order to further their reasoning about the animals.

Theoretical Basis 

This study is rooted in the belief that learning is a cultural endeavor that is influenced by social context (e.g., Vygotsky, 1987). It is mediated by specific kinds of tools: certain words, types of speaking (like argumentation), and physical objects. These tools – once established by a cultural group – help people learn. Kisiel and colleagues specifically sought to understand how groups of visitors engaged in the sociocultural practice of argumentation at touch tanks.

Implications for Practice

Though the purpose of the touch tanks was not to further scientific reasoning skills, this study reminds exhibit designers that even exploratory, biology-based exhibits offer opportunities for developing scientific practices. As museums consider the implications of A Framework for K–12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) and consider how to incorporate scientific practices into their exhibits, perhaps the starting place is simply to examine existing opportunities to support participants in making sense of science.

Kisiel and colleagues explored these opportunities in touch tanks, but the study’s findings may well apply to other existing exhibits. For example, students might interpret data or use computational thinking as they decide which dinosaur in an exhibit is oldest. Adults might evaluate and compare information in the museum with their own professional expertise. In these ways, museum visitors might be continually practicing science as they learn new content. Exhibit designers and informal educators can specifically call out these opportunities by suggesting ways to engage in science practices with each exhibit.


NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. The National Academies Press. Retrieved from 

Gutwill, J. P., & Allen, S. (2012). Deepening students’ scientific inquiry skills during a science museum field trip. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(1), 130–181. doi:10.1080/10508406.2011.555938 

National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1987). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Problems of general psychology, including the volume Thinking and speech. (R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton, Eds.). Springer Verlag.

Related Briefs:

  • Benally, S., & Wingert, K. (2013). Cultural forms of discourse predispose students to scientific inquiry: An ISE research brief discussing Hudicourt-Barnes, “The use of argumentation in Haitian Creole science classrooms.”
  • Perin, S. (2011). How museum visitors reason about evolution: An ISE research brief discussing Evans et al., "A conceptual guide to natural history museum visitors’ understanding of evolution."
  • Perin, S. M. (2011). How to help parents support pre-schoolers’ exploratory behavior: An ISE research brief discussing Van Schijndel et al., "The Exploratory Behavior Scale: Assessing young visitors’ hands-on behavior in science museums."
  • Regan, E. (2011). Enhancing visitor experiences of guided tours using entrance narratives: An ISE research brief discussing Tsybulskaya & Camhi, "Accessing and incorporating visitor's entrance narratives in guided museum tours."
  • Wingert, K. (2013). Building inquiry during science field trips: An ISE research brief discussing Gutwill & Allen, “Deepening students’ scientific inquiry skills during a science museum field trip.”