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Researchers are finding new ways of making museum field trips stimulating and meaningful.


Seated atop a child-size bulldozer, Sam Henry is living out an 11-year-old boy's dream. Feverish with concentration, he churns the pedals that make the bright-yellow vehicle go. As it moves, the machine plows through piles of gray, foam rocks and clears a smooth path along the floor of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

"This is my favorite part of the museum," he says after he reluctantly dismounts. "It's really fun and you learn stuff."

Learning "stuff," of course, is what museums are all about. But now, more than ever, research is focusing on getting inside the heads of museum-goers like Sam to find out exactly what kind of "stuff" they are learning.

What did Sam know about machines before he entered the building? When he looked at the exposed gears on the bulldozer, could he see that meshed gears turn in both directions? And most importantly, what can museums do to help visitors like Sam learn better?

"Museums have had education programs since the 19th century, but stepping back and trying to understand what happens with those programs has been a change," says Lynn D. Dierking, an associate director of the Institute for Learning Innovation in Annapolis, Md. The nonprofit group studies learning in museums, zoos, and other out-of-school contexts.

She and other scholars are building a body of research on what experts in the field call "informal," or "free choice," learning--the kind of learning that happens outside the traditional confines of schools.

"The way we learn in museums is the way we learn most of what we learn in life," says Minda Borun, the director of research and evaluation at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. "There are some hands-on experiences in classrooms, and there are printed words in museums. But the balance is different."

Vivid Memories

Some of the impetus for studying the learning that takes place in museums has come from prominent education researchers such as Howard Gardner, the Harvard University psychologist known for his theory of multiple intelligences, and Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, the University of Chicago psychologist who developed the "flow" theory of learning.

"Anybody who has watched kids respond to these museums," Mr. Gardner wrote of science, discovery, and children's museums in 1993, "has the sense that there is something very important going on cognitively there."

Visitors, in fact, will return time and again to see an exhibit that touches an emotional or intellectual nerve.

John H. Falk, the director of the Annapolis institute, once asked groups of college students and elementary school children to recall a field trip they had taken to a museum years earlier.

He found that 95 percent of them, regardless of age, could relate exactly what they saw, what they did, and who they were with. And more than 70 percent of the details the students summoned up had to do with the content of the programs or the exhibits they saw.

Such vivid recollections, he believes, illustrate the potential educational value of such experiences: "If you took a one-day experience out of someone's life, what is the probability that they would remember that experience for the rest of their lives?"

Stimulus for educational studies in museums also comes from foundations. Many grant-making organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, require--and pay for--evaluations of museum exhibits they support.

The NSF's strong involvement in the field over the past decade explains in part why many of the newer studies are coming out of science museums, children's museums, zoos, and aquariums. Art museums, however, are also beginning to study what goes on inside their visitors' heads.

To some degree, the new research emphasis has created tensions between museum curators and education directors, says George E. Hein, a professor emeritus at Boston's Lesley College and a leading museum researcher.

"Curators come to exhibits from the perspective of their professional fields," he says. "They have a real concern that the five people who really know this exhibit will find a mistake in it." Educators, on the other hand, want to communicate most effectively with the widest range of people.

Making Sense to Visitors

At its simplest level, research can guide museum administrators on whether an exhibit will pique visitors' interest or confound them.

One study found that 95 percent of students–regardless of age–could relate details of what they saw, what they did, and who they were with on a field trip.

"Instead of developing an exhibit in a shop somewhere and putting it out when it's finished, we take an early idea for an exhibit and put it on a table top somewhere in the museum, " says Larry Bell, the vice president of exhibits for the Boston Science Museum. "You only need an hour to find out whether it makes sense to people."

"In our old-fashioned way of thinking not that many years ago," he adds, "we would make it work for us, and if we put it out there and it didn't work well for visitors we might say, 'Well, it was just over their heads.'"

From studies of visitors' behavior, museums have also learned that people tend to turn right when they enter a museum gallery and to leave by the first open door, that labels of 100 words or more often go unread, and that positioning is everything.

More recently, the Franklin Institute's Ms. Borun identified seven exhibit characteristics out of a possible list of a dozen or more that promoted learning in family groups. Educationally successful exhibits, she and her colleagues found:

  • Are multisided, instead of lined up along a wall;
  • Are open to many users at the same time;
  • Are accessible to both children and adults;
  • Allow for multiple outcomes, meaning that they do not try to lead the visitor to a single right answer;
  • Appeal to several different learning styles;
  • Display text in easily understood chunks; and
  • Provide links to visitors' personal experiences.

While many of these characteristics sound like common sense, Ms. Borun says, they are not found in many museums. Like many museum researchers, she has concentrated on the learning that goes on in families because families make up the largest sector of museum-goers.

Some studies also show that family groups tend to spend more time at exhibits than do other types of visitors. Children talk more about the exhibits they see when they are with their parents.


"But that also depends on the kind of exhibit," says Stephen C. Bitgood, a psychology professor at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala. "Other exhibits are more oriented toward adults, and there you couldn't get children to stay long."

Other research has looked at the misconceptions visitors bring to museums, and whether exhibits dispel or reinforce those notions.

The problem is especially common in science. For example, in one of Ms. Borun's studies, half the visitors to an exhibit on gravity harbored one of two misconceptions on the subject. Many visitors mistakenly assumed, for example, that air pressure causes gravity or that gravity is generated by the earth's rotation. But a label reading, "Gravity does not depend on air," somehow tended to reinforce that perception in visitors.

The Franklin Institute researchers also found, though, that they could dispel the visitors' mistaken ideas with an exhibit built to demonstrate that a ball could fall in a tube with or without air.

And sometimes the message exhibits communicate is not even close to the mark, says Mr. Bell of the Boston Science Museum. San Francisco's Exploratorium broke ground in the late 1960s by creating hands-on exhibits in which visitors could take active roles in the scientific phenomena they were witnessing. They could, for example, adjust the frequency and volume of sound waves.

But, Mr. Bell says, museums across the country tried to imitate the Exploratorium's success by creating exhibits that were simply interactive, sometimes without enough thought about what lessons those exhibits would teach.

His own museum, for example, toyed with the idea of using a pinball machine to teach about bird ecology. Staff members discarded it, however, after realizing that pinball players absorbed in their games would probably not stop to read the educational text on the display.

"It's not enough to be hands-on," Mr. Bell says. "It has to be minds-on."

Cutting-edge exhibits now tend to do more than give visitors buttons to push. They encourage students to experiment and to ask questions, Mr. Bell says.

Studies show that children talk more about exhibits when they are with their parents.

To create those kinds of exhibits, many museum educators are borrowing from constructivist education theory, which holds that children learn more when they actively build their own knowledge and seeks to determine how to build from what children already know.

A Learning Playground

The Indianapolis Children's Museum--where Sam Henry did his bulldozing--is a prime example. To put together their $5 million science gallery, museum officials enlisted the help of cognitive scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as part of an advisory group that included curriculum specialists, exhibit designers, educators, and scientists.

The group's charge was to answer the question: "What do elementary-aged children need to learn about science and how do they learn it?" The group interviewed hundreds of children, consulted national guidelines on children's science learning, and conducted their own studies.

The advisory group said "'Don't work with magnetism and electricity, it's too abstract--too easy to have misconceptions,'" says Karol Bartlett, the museum's education director.

The research instead pointed toward promoting a few scientific concepts and linking them to children's everyday lives. Thus, the gallery designers built a pond habitat that allows children to observe live underwater creatures, a creek where they can do experiments on sinking and floating, a construction site filled with simple, child-sized machines, and a wall of Indiana limestone where children can climb at one end or dig in the dirt for fossils at the other.

What Is Being Learned?

"We know that children don't go around with boxes in their heads, thinking, 'This is physical science. This is natural science,'" says Leona Schauble, the cognitive researcher who advised the group. "We wanted to create a web with the same big ideas coming up over and over again. You learn something in A and then you learn something else in B, and you may encounter it many times before you go, 'Ah-ha!'"

Ms. Schauble and a colleague, Susan Carpenter, also conducted studies to find out what children already knew--or mistakenly assumed--about fossils. They discovered that children had a hard time imagining a fossil as part of a once-living animal. So matching puzzles were created in the fossil exhibit to help children make that connection.

Gallery planners also learned they couldn't just create a giant playground for children. They had to actively mediate their visitors' learning. In some cases, that meant involving children in guided experiments. In others, it meant posing problems for children to solve on their own.

But pinning down just what visitors learn from their museum experiences is no easy task.

"If you pretest them before they come into the museum and post-test them afterwards, the pretest kind of sensitizes them to the kinds of things you want them to learn," Mr. Bitgood of Jacksonville State University says.

Some museums have addressed that problem by giving visitors cameras and inviting them back weeks later to talk about the pictures they took. Others have created open-ended interviewing techniques to get visitors to talk about what they know before they visit the museum.

"You can't just ask them what did they learn," Ms. Bartlett notes.

A natural outgrowth of all these studies has been some cross-fertilization between the worlds of museums and education. The Washington-based American Association of Museums estimates, for example, that at least 17 public schools are now based in museum settings around the country. Museums such as the Buffalo Science Museum are also playing active roles in providing professional development for teachers.

And four federal agencies--the Institute for Library and Museum Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation--are sponsoring a five-year research effort involving 13 museums and education researchers from across the country.

But for the children who visit museums like the Indianapolis Children's Museum, the world's largest, the bottom line is still fun. The museum's ScienceWorks gallery, which opened in 1996, has become its most popular exhibit.

Brandon Flynn, one of those visitors, says he has been to the gallery 10 times. At school, the 12-year-old says, he is no fan of science class. "But if I come up here, I'm never bored."

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 26-29

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Research Notes
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