Seeing Scientifically: Developing Smart Microscope Exhibits That Support Authentic Visitor Observation and Scientific Inquiry of Living Microscopic Organisms

Thursday, October 1, 2020 to Monday, September 30, 2024
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions
Environment Type: 
Exhibitions, Museum and Science Center Exhibits
General Public | Museum/ISE Professionals | Learning Researchers
Life science

The science museum field is only starting to look at ways of providing visitors with opportunities for the authentic observation of complex, real-time biological phenomenon. The project will develop and research a microscope-based exhibit with pedagogical scaffolding (i.e., helpful prompts) that responds to visitors' changing views as they explore live samples and biological processes. As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative research, approaches, and resources for use in a variety of settings. Scientific observation is a systematic, complex practice, critical in the biological sciences where investigation is heavily reliant on visual data. Using techniques and equipment similar to what scientists themselves use, the exhibit will enable visitors to see and explore the complex, dynamic visual evidence that scientists themselves see. The exhibit will use new and more affordable high-resolution imaging technology and image analysis software to make microscopic images of living organisms visible. Armed with "smart" (i.e., computer-assisted) pedagogical scaffolding that supports inquiry, the project will develop exhibits that help informal learners bridge the gap between everyday observation and authentic scientific observation. The platform will incorporate strategies grounded in prior work on learning through observation that will be applicable to a range of biological content and live specimens. The project platform will be designed for use to a variety of informal science learning environments, including nature centers and mobile laboratories as well as interactive science centers. The project platform itself, including the microscope, related imaging, and learning technologies will be relatively inexpensive, bring it within reach of small science museum and schools. The exhibit will directly engage thousands of learners who visit the Exploratorium and will reach underserved audiences through partnerships with BioBus, a mobile unit that serves the New York City area, and the Noyo Center of Marine Science, a science museum that serves rural areas in Northern California.

The project will move beyond simulation and modeling of complex visual phenomena and provide learners with experiences using real visual evidence that can deeply engage them with the content and practice of biological science. By grounding the work in prior theoretical and empirical findings, project research will refine and broaden understanding of scaffolding strategies and their effect on informal science learning at exhibits. Project research will investigate how the project supports learners (1) asking productive questions (i.e., those answerable through observations) that are meaningful to them, (2) interpreting what they see, and (3) connecting their observations to biological concepts to build a more coherent understanding of the content and practice of biological disciplines. A series of comparative studies across and within venues, specimens, and content will assess engagement and scaffolding strategies, with a particular focus on appropriately integrating computational imaging techniques in a way that is responsive to the interests and needs of different venues' audiences. Project research will contribute important knowledge on ways to support informal learners who are engaged in authentic observation of biological phenomenon. Project research findings and technology resources will be widely shared with informal STEM researchers and practitioners concerned with engaging the public in current research in biology, as well as those interested in supporting observation in other disciplines (e.g., meteorology, ocean science, environmental science) that rely on an evidence base of live, dynamic, complex imagery.

This Innovations in Development award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Funding Program: 
Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 
Funding Amount: 

Team Members

Kristina YuKristina YuPrincipal Investigator
Daniel FletcherDaniel FletcherCo-Principal Investigator
Joyce MaCo-Principal Investigator

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