average of 15 minutes at each bench. They really enjoy working on the different investigations, with the Cheek Cell bench often selected as one of their favorites. Below are some visitor reactions:
“We got to mix all [this] stuff together.” (Interviewer: “What’s fun about that?”) “Mixing stuff is fun.”
“It was spelled out in an easy way, so it was easy for the kids to do on their own.”
“It was interesting to be able to test some ideas for yourself. Like the anti-bacterial soap and saliva—it didn’t tell you what the answer would be, you had to test it for yourself. Then at the end it [the Lab Companion] provided some information. That … helped you understand [what] you just did. That [is what] makes these [lab benches] so good—the [combination] of experience and information” (male, 43).
The first quote above illustrates a common response of visitors; one of their goals for an informal experience is active engagement or doing fun things. The second quote is a reminder that visitors may want to explore complex issues, but prefer to do so through experiences that are easily accessible. Parents are often particularly concerned that their children are able to participate easily. The third quote from an adult describes the full spectrum of the experience and again illustrates that learners can be aware of the content and even the underlying design principles of the experience.
Interviews with visitors also reveal that they mostly performed the investigation outlined in the Lab Companion and then talked about what happened. The setup of the benches has been thoughtfully designed to allow for dialogue. “The museum designs these spaces to support social interaction. The benches are arranged so that small groups can do the activities together,” explains Kirsten Ellenbogen, director of evaluation and research on learning at the museum. “People can look at each other’s experiments or specimens and talk about what they see.”
These strategies appear to be working. They have been consistently successful in providing visitors with a rewarding experience. Perhaps a father, visiting with his 11-year-old daughter, best sums up the impact of a visit to Cell Lab: “I don’t know if I could really speak for the kids, but they always want to come back to the cell ones [Cell Lab benches]. It’s my favorite because it’s fun to mess around with all this stuff. Do little experiments for yourself rather than watch someone else to do it. We visit all the time and even though the experiment’s the same, the kids get just as excited…. It’s like her own little private laboratory—there are people here to help us and it’s not too crowded…. I think, for her, it’s just the chance to do something you can’t do anywhere else.”12