Falk, J. H., & Needham, M. D. (2011). Measuring the impact of a science center on its community. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(1), 1–12. doi:10.1002/tea.20394
Science centers provide communities with access to scientific information and concepts. Through analysis of quantitative survey data and qualitative visitor research, the authors sought to answer two research questions (pp. 3–4):
- Who in L.A. has visited the California Science Center, and what factors best describe those who have and those who have not visited?
- Does visiting the California Science Center impact public science understanding, attitudes, and behaviors, and, if so, in what way?
The quantitative outside-in approach used in the longitudinal study assessed the scientific knowledge of the community to determine the impact of the science center on knowledge and awareness of science.
The study consisted of two telephone surveys of residents of Los Angeles, California. The first randomly selected set of 832 adult residents took the survey in 2000, about a year after the science center reopened to the public. A second random sample of 1,009 residents was surveyed in 2009. Survey participants in both cases were chosen from five areas of L.A. to represent the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity of the population. However, demographics varied between the two surveys, due to differences in technology and access to telephones. This limitation is addressed in the full article.
In addition to Likert scale questions, the survey also included short-answer questions about a particular scientific concept, homeostasis—a concept highlighted at the science center but not generally elsewhere. This concept was used as a marker to determine whether learning occurred at the museum.
From 2000 to 2009, the number of respondents reporting that they had visited the science center rose from 23 percent to 45 percent. Extrapolating from adult responses about visiting the museum with children, the study reports that more than half of the population of L.A had visited as of 2009.
Understanding of homeostasis had increased significantly by 2009, compared to the baseline of responses from visitors entering the museum after it reopened in 1998. In both 2000 and 2009, individuals who could correctly define the phenomenon were significantly more likely to have visited the science center.
In 2009, adults whose children had visited the museum reported that the experience had:
- Increased their children’s understanding of science or technology (87 percent)
- Increased their children’s appreciation for (80 percent) and interest in (78 percent) science and technology
- Created opportunities for them to talk with their children about science (79 percent)
- Inspired their children to learn more about some aspect of science or technology (74 percent)
- Enhanced their children’s chances of future success in life (79 percent)
- Provided access to experiences not available or supported in other ways in the community (79 percent)
Members of minority groups were significantly more likely than the general sample to agree with the last three statements. The strength of these perceptions among lower-income and minority adults, combined with evidence in literature that traditional modes of education privilege children from the majority group, lead the authors to suggest that visiting science centers can add to “funds of knowledge,” defined by González, Moll, and Amanti (2005) as cross-contextual knowledge gained through family, cultural, and community experience. The science center was seen by some in the community as a “gateway to future success” (p. 9).
Implications for Practice
The author of this brief suggests that evidence reinforces how difficult it can be to assess the impact of free-choice experiences. The evidence clearly showed that visiting the science center significantly contributed to the public’s learning about homeostasis. However, when asked where they learned about homeostasis, most respondents named the place where the concept was initially introduced, school, rather than where it was reinforced and extended, the science center. Additionally, informal science educators might consider the implication that shared learning is promoted among families and groups going to museums together. Museum educators could encourage families to continue discussions and activities after their visit by providing take-home materials.
González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.