By Heather King - May 2014
Achiam, M. F. (2013). A content-oriented model for science exhibit engineering. International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement, 3(3), 214–232. doi:10.1080/21548455.2012.698445
In this paper, Achiam presents a template for improving and systematizing the exhibit design process to ensure that the visitor experience matches the designer’s intended learning outcomes. The template helps to unpack and “operationalize” visitors’ interactions with exhibits. By examining the relationship between visitor actions and exhibit features, we can better understand why exhibits, or indeed other learning environments, do or do not meet their intended learning outcomes.
Achiam’s proposal is underpinned by a model of human activity called praxeology. In the case of engagement with a museum exhibit, the praxis or activity involves:
- Tasks: the challenge the exhibit poses
- Techniques: the ways in which visitors complete the challenge
- Technology: the visitor’s rationale for applying the technique to the task
Applying the framework of praxeology, Achiam discusses the design of one exhibit commonly found in science museums: a hot-air balloon whose ascent and descent demonstrates the effects of heating a volume of air. The exhibit was designed to illustrate Charles’ Law: Assuming that pressure remains constant, the volume and absolute temperature of a quantity of gas are directly proportional, so that each 1°C of increase in temperature produces the same increase in volume.
The designer’s intended praxeology for visitors is as follows:
Task: increase the temperature of the air inside the balloon
Techniques: read instructions on panel, press buttons in indicated sequence, read temperature gaugeTechnology: know that increasing the temperature of the air causes it to expand, making it less dense than the surrounding air and causing the balloon to ascend
Achiam then discusses visitors’ interpretation of the exhibit as described in a study by Botelho and Morais (2006). She notes, for example, that students were able to easily able to complete the task and enact appropriate techniques. However, when asked to explain the phenomenon and thus articulate their technology, the students offered non-scientific accounts. The intended learning outcome—that visitors would gain a hands-on experience of Charles’ Law—was not achieved. Rather, most visitors simply learned that, when they pressed a button, the balloon rose and then fell.
In an attempt to address this problem, Achiam uses a praxeological template to explore alternative exhibit designs that would scaffold visitors’ interactions with the phenomenon and facilitate their understanding of Charles’ Law. She outlines a process of “museographic transposition” to describe the step-by-step development of an exhibit to realize its praxeological intent.
The first phase of transposition involves framing and staging the task, that is, selecting the concept to be presented and learned. In this instance, a key concept is that air is not a “non-material,” as many visitors might think, but that it has pressure, density, and volume. Thus an activity is needed to allow visitors to experience this concept. Achiam suggests that visitors engage in physically forcing air into the balloon. Next, visitors should be given the means to heat the air inside the balloon and be prompted to observe what happens.
The second phase involves ensuring that the exhibit really does implement the designers’ intention, so that visitors who encounter it immediately understand its purpose, scope, and properties. Thus Achiam suggests relabeling the exhibit with the title “Can you make the hot air balloon fly?” Further amendments to the exhibit should ensure that visitors understand that the rise in temperature is what causes the balloon’s flight; the quantity and pressure of the air have remained the same. For this purpose, Achiam proposes the use of an interpretation panel.
Implications for practice
Achiam notes that the main contribution of the praxeology template is not to define one course of action, but instead to sensitize exhibit designers to the potential outcomes that an exhibit may promote. Moreover, she notes that exhibit design is subject to financial, ergonomic, and safety considerations. Of course consideration should be given to museum professionals’ instincts and implicit knowledge about what makes a good exhibit. Nonetheless, the paper provides a convincing argument for a greater use of praxeology in order to enrich the practice of exhibit designers and guide the actions of gallery educators, with the ultimate aim of facilitating visitor engagement with exhibits.
Botelho, A., & Morais, A. M. (2006). Students-exhibits interaction at a science center. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43(10), 987–1018.