Facilitating Group Scientific Inquiry Using Science Museum Exhibits

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 to Tuesday, August 31, 2010
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Project Descriptions
Environment Type: 
Public Programs, Museum and Science Center Programs, Exhibitions, Museum and Science Center Exhibits
Families | General Public | Museum/ISE Professionals | Evaluators
Education and learning science | General STEM | Nature of science
Exploratorium, Allen and Associates

This study (1) creates a genre of exhibit-based, group scientific inquiry programs for general and low-income museum visitors, (2) determines key program characteristics that lead to learning, (3) conducts a controlled experiment to assess the levels and nature of actual transfer of such skills to other exhibits and to visitors' lives beyond the museum visit. A team of researchers and educators creates, revises, and studies Exhibit Investigations for general and underserved visitors at the Exploratorium. During Investigations, educators coach visitors in inquiry skills that are heuristics for engaging with exhibits or physical phenomena beyond the museum. Pre- and post-assessments of learner interactions with a novel exhibit are recorded and analyzed for evidence of transfer of the inquiry skills introduced during the Investigations. Exit and follow-up interviews determine long-term impact. Two versions of the Investigations-with and without mnemonic cards summarizing inquiry skills-are compared with two control conditions in a randomized block design with four conditions and 50 groups per condition. Intellectual Merit The project broadens the focus of current research on the learning of scientific inquiry skills beyond the school setting. A science museum with engaging and interactive exhibits constitutes an ideal and understudied setting for research on inquiry learning by groups. This project . describes the nature of inquiry learning in an informal learning environment . generates principles for using audience diversity to enhance learning identifies specific inquiry skills that are relevant and effective in this environment . assesses levels of transfer of such skills by visitors . compares such transfer to control groups receiving no mediation or content-based mediation The exhibit-based, group inquiries adapt best practices from formal education for use in the multigenerational, free-choice learning environment of a museum. The research yields a series of effective programs and a set of theoretical principles that account for their efficacy. Broader Impacts Project results and learning principles will be disseminated to academic, museum, and lay audiences. In total, the project serves approximately 1,000 Exploratorium visitors. The project will is presented at national and local conferences such as AERA, ASTC, VSA, and AAM, reaching museum researchers, practitioners, and a broad educational research community. Articles are submitted to peer-review journals in the fields of museum studies and science education. Project updates and the final report are posted on the Exploratorium Web site (visited by 15 million annually). Outcomes are disseminated to the Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS), an initiative of the Exploratorium, Kings College London, and UC Santa Cruz. A non-technical publication, distributed through the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), informs science centers around the world.

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Team Members

Josh GutwillPrincipal Investigator
Kathleen McLeanKathleen McLeanCo-Principal Investigator
Erin WilsonErin WilsonCo-Principal Investigator
Sue AllenFormer Principal Investigator

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