Using Scientific Inquiry Activities in Exhibit Explanations

Thursday, May 15, 1997
Resource Type:
Peer-reviewed article | Research Products
Environment Type: 
Exhibitions, Museum and Science Center Exhibits
General Public | Museum/ISE Professionals | Evaluators
Education and learning science | General STEM | Physics

This study investigated the effect of different scientific inquiry activities on visitors’ understanding of the science underlying an interactive exhibit. The exhibit, “colored shadows,” creates a pattern of colored shadows on a white wall, due to a person’s body blocking the light from colored lamps. The subjects were 392 museum visitors, aged 7 to adult. They were individually guided through a structured interview, during which they did one of seven inquiry activities, randomly assigned. The activities were: generate an explanation; interpret an explanation; troubleshoot an explanation; choose between two explanations; choose plus design a discriminating experiment; choose plus make and test a related prediction; and make a prediction before experiencing the phenomenon. As a test of their final understanding, visitors were asked to complete two near-transfer tasks in diagrammatic form. The results showed that the interpretation activity was the most effective in facilitating visitors’ understanding of the mechanism of shadow-creation; least effective was the activity in which visitors made a prediction before experiencing the phenomenon. Visitors had relatively little difficulty choosing correctly from two explanations, but had much more difficulty designing a discriminating experiment. Only rarely during the interviews did visitors revise their thinking in the face of disconfirming evidence. Although the majority of visitors did not answer both transfer problems correctly, their thinking generally showed consistency and logic. The most common types of reasoning used were causal models that traced the path of light from each lamp to the object and to the wall. Such models incorporated ideas of reflection, blocking, and reflection/blocking hybrids, among others. A follow-up study will incorporate these insights into stand-alone exhibit labels for further testing.

Private Foundation
Publication Name: 
Science Education
Page Number: 

Team Members

Sue AllenAuthor

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