When we consider education and learning, our minds naturally drift towards formal institutions like schools and universities, but much of what we learn actually happens in informal environments like the home, on the playground, in the office, at museums, and of course at places like the Aquarium.
More research on science-learning has been done within schools and universities than in informal environments. As an informal science learning site (ISLS), with education as one of our mission pillars, this subject is of great importance to us. Aquarium Education Specialist, Karen Burns, had the opportunity to partner with other informal learning sites from around the USA and the United Kingdom in taking a closer look at how people learn about science in settings similar to the Aquarium.
The study examined three factors with regard to a learner interacting with an educational exhibit: the learner’s interest in the subject matter, the learner’s perception of what she learned from the exhibit, and what information was actually recalled. The study observed visitors to the Aquarium and other participating ISLS which included 979 minors and 1,184 adults. Researchers were curious to observe how learners were impacted as a result of who, if anyone, was teaching the information to the guests at an exhibit.
- Do adult learners respond better to other adults?
- Do children recall more if taught by a youth volunteer?
- Is the perceived learning aligned with what learners actually recall?
- Are learners more interested in the topic with a live educator versus interacting alone with an exhibit?
These and other questions were examined in the study. Some participants interacted with the exhibit alone, while others interacted with live educators, who were youths (14-18) or adults (19+). Participants were asked how much they thought they had learned and how interested they were in the topic. This was then compared to their actual recall when questioned about the subject matter. The goal was to learn what makes for optimal learning experiences in an ISLS so that facilities like the Aquarium can better design programs and provide differentiated instruction to best educate their visitors.
The results were fascinating, and the major take away was that having educators, regardless of age, present at the exhibits is important. Participants showed greater interest in and recall of the material when they could interact with an educator and interestingly, both children and adults reported more enthusiasm for the material when the educator was a youth (aged 14-18).
Globally, museums spend over $2 billion dollars a year on education and provide more than 18 million hours of instruction yearly as part of their programming. This study’s findings support the need for educational funding to ISLS for educators and have implications for policy and practice that supports the inclusion of youth educators.
The study further emphasized that visitor experiences are diverse across age groups. It revealed that visitors to these sites have distinct experiences and suggests that ISLS might want to consider differentiating instruction, educators, and the exhibit content itself based on the age of the target learners. Overall, the study highlighted the importance of having educators in informal science learning sites and documented the importance of attention to the developmental needs of learners.
We value all our Aquarium educators, those on staff and our volunteers. We didn’t really need a formal study to tell us how important our educators are to the success of our mission, but we hope this study will encourage policymakers to prioritize the need when creating educational budgets in the future. The Aquarium is so much more than an amazingly fun place to visit. Clearly, we are an important piece to the greater education of society.
Interest and Learning in Informal Science Learning Sites: Differences in Experiences with Different Types of Educators, July 2020.
Authors: Kelly Lynn Mulvey, Luke McGuire, Adam J. Hoffman, Eric Goff, Adam Rutland, Mark Winterbottom, Frances Belkwell, Matthew J. Irvin, Grace E. Fields, Karen Burns, Marc Drews, Fidelia Law, Angelina Joy, Adam Hartstone-Rose
Supported in the USA by the National Science Foundation and collaboratively in the UK by the Welcome Trust.
**If you are interested in reading the entire research paper, you can find it