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.
This literature review identifies four common characteristics of MCZAs as they communicate scientific knowledge to large numbers of heterogeneous visitors.
- Motives and goals. MCZAs have to balance their own educational goals with the target audiences’ desire for recreation, aesthetic appreciation, entertainment, and social interaction.
- Staging of science. The authors argue that MCZAs are artificial environments that present scientific phenomena in a stylized and condensed way; they are not in themselves authentic scientific environments. The strategies for exhibiting science have traditional and historic aspects of stagecraft and authenticity. Stagecraft includes elements of atmosphere such as lighting, colors, and arrangement of objects or animals; narrative, such as biographies of individual scientists or stories of scientific discovery; and reconstructed scenes, such as dioramas, taxidermy, or live animal habitats. The science presented is authentic, by exhibiting science-related artifacts or animals, and by providing authentic experiences through hands-on activity.
- Physical layout. The large spaces of MCZAs contain an arrangement of exhibits. The authors note that, in general, the presentation is simultaneous, rather than successive. Visitors have to choose among a large number of exhibits that compete for their attention and that offer more than they can accomplish in a single visit. The path through the exhibits is curiosity-driven, rather than arbitrary, which enhances motivation and satisfaction.
- Social exchange and participation. Visitors to MCZAs plan their visits primarily as social events. Learning outcomes in MCZAs are therefore shaped by visitors’ social interactions. These social interactions shape identity, which in turn guides visitors’ behavior and actions during and after their visit. Effective exhibit design depends on fostering interactions that can facilitate learning. Interactions with trained facilitators, staff, or interpreters are, according to the authors, particularly powerful learning in these settings.
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.