Summative Evaluation of Geometry Playground for The Exploratorium
The summative evaluation of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Geometry Playground traveling exhibition was a two-year naturalistic study to examine (a) the ways and extent to which the exhibition promoted the practice of spatial reasoning skills, and appreciation for geometry, and (b) its influence on museum professionals' thinking across three venues: the Exploratorium (San Francisco, CA), the Science Museum of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN), and the Don Harrington Discovery Center (Amarillo, TX). The study took place from December 2009 through November 2011 and included five site visits to the first three host museums, observations of, and interviews with, purposively selected casual museum visitors and museum staff, and reviews of documents including an extensive critical review of the project website. Data collection also included interviews with museum staff and a critical review of the project's website. Data analysis was conducted using modified inductive constant comparison. A total of approximately 164 contact hours (including observations, interviews, and on-site debriefs) were spent with 354 respondent groups (1,620 individuals). Findings indicated many visitors of all ages engaged in a variety of types of spatial reasoning within the exhibition, and in some cases moved up a level or two on a knowledge hierarchy. Social interactions among visitors tended to be of three types: Far Out, Up Close, and Hybrid. Some social interactions and ability to engage with the exhibits were limited by the need for just one thing, e.g. a hint to notice or do something. Most visitors to the large climbing structures tended to engage in age-appropriate playground behaviors. At the smaller immersives and table-top units engagements were more typical of museum behaviors including teaching/learning behaviors. Most visitors tended to think primarily about geometry rather than spatial reasoning. When they did think about spatial reasoning, it helped them move up a level on the knowledge hierarchy. Engagement with spatial reasoning and geometry appeared to be equitable for girls and boys. Conceptual pairings of some of the exhibits worked well when the exhibits were in close proximity and/or when the pairings were pointed out to visitors. But most visitors were not aware of the pairings. The exhibits appeared to travel well. Challenges included the size, weight, and complexity of installation required for the large climbing structures, and some wear and tear of exhibit components. The flexible floor plan had both advantages and disadvantages. There was limited guidance and training for floor staff, ultimately resulting in uneven support and guidance for visitors. The exhibition contributed to many visitors' positive feelings about, and appreciation for, the aesthetics of geometry. Host museum staff gained some appreciation for the exhibition itself, for the ways in which visitors learned about geometry, and for the appropriateness of large-scale climbing structures within a science museum setting.