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Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments
sample, 96 percent correctly drew skeletons whose bones began or ended at the joints of the body; this result was in sharp contrast to the understanding shown by a sample of children of a similar age who did not experience the exhibit; only 3 percent of this group could draw a skeleton correctly. Even more impressively, the children’s understanding persisted over time, with 92 percent retaining the idea of bones extending between places where the body bends 8 months after their museum visit. During that time, the children had not received additional schooling, practice, or warning that they would be tested.7
Interactive experiences also support Strand 3, Engaging in Scientific Reasoning, although the most sophisticated kinds of reasoning are more difficult to support in short-term experiences. In a study of eight interactive exhibits from three different science centers, Scott Randol found that the majority could be categorized as “do and see” activities. That is, visitors manipulate the exhibit to explore its capabilities and observe what happens as a result. Through their actions, the visitors engage in many behaviors associated with inquiry, including turning a dial or rolling a wheel, observing what happens, collecting data, and describing results. More sophisticated elements of scientific reasoning have also been observed, such as interpretation of the observed reactions, connecting them to prior experience, predicting outcomes of additional manipulations, and posing further questions. However, in museum settings, these occur less often than simple observation and description.8
It appears, too, that providing opportunities for active engagement draws more people to an exhibit (Strand 1). Researcher John Koran and his colleagues found that simply removing the plexiglass cover from an exhibit case of seashells increased the number of visitors who stopped there and the amount of time they spent, even though only 38 percent of those who stopped actually picked up a shell.9 Even in institutions with live animals, visitors seek out interactivity. In a study designed by Alexander Goldowsky, visitors were divided into two groups to compare two different learning experiences associated with an exhibit on penguins. The control group went to a typical aquarium exhibit, where they observed live penguins in their natural habitat. The experimental group went to a similar exhibit with an interactive component added—a device that allowed participants to move a light beam across the bottom of the pool. Attracted by the light, the penguins would chase it. After reviewing videotapes for 301 visitor groups (756 individuals), Goldowsky found that those who interacted with penguins were significantly more engaged by the exhibit and more likely to discuss the behavior of the penguins.10