Science museums, science centers, zoos, aquariums: Different but the same

By Suzanne Perin - November 2015


Schwan, S., Grajal, A., & Lewalter, D. (2014). Understanding and engagement in places of science experience: Science museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums. Educational Psychologist, 49(2), 70–85. doi:10.1080/00461520.2014.917588

Public understanding of science, public understanding of research, and science literacy are common goals in museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums (MCZAs). Schwan, Grajal, and Lewalter note that MCZAs increasingly describe science as unfinished or present conflicting information to stimulate an understanding of scientific research and interpretation.

Rather than focusing on how different they are—for example, whether they offer hands-on exhibits or live animals—this literature review details similarities among MCZAs. This article identifies four shared characteristics of these informal science environments: motives and goals, staging of popular science, physical layout, and social exchange and participation. The learning outcomes encompass not only knowledge acquisition but also changes in interests and beliefs.

Research Findings 

This literature review identifies four common characteristics of MCZAs as they communicate scientific knowledge to large numbers of heterogeneous visitors.

Implications for Practice

The paper reviews empirical research about the characteristics of learning processes and outcomes in science museums, science centers, zoos, and aquaria. Its clearly articulated information can help those who want to conceptualize how MCZAs present science without getting bogged down in the differences among these informal science settings. The article provides important background for informal science educators leading study groups or undertaking literature reviews, especially if they want to expand beyond a “knowledge acquisition” model, or look for research project ideas.

Related Briefs:

  • Bevan, B. (2011). Multiple routes for the development and pursuit of interests: An ISE research brief discussing Barron’s "Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective."
  • Ryoo, J. J. (2015). Identifying how people learn across space, time, and contexts: An ISE research brief discussing Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, “What is connected learning and how to research it?”