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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
have found that the degree to which a learner’s agenda is satisfied or frustrated can greatly affect his or her memories of learning experiences. In interviewing participants about world expos they attended after almost two decades of elapsed time, they found that visitors’ “social context,” which includes the participants’ agenda, “dominated their recall of their … experiences [15 to 17 years] after the event—more than any other encounter or episode they were able to report” (Anderson, 2003, p. 417).
The participants’ agendas and the pedagogical or communicative goals of a particular designed setting may coincide, conflict, or simply fail to connect. Dierking, Burtnyk, Buchner, and Falk (2002), for example, conducted a literature review on participation and learning in zoos and aquariums. They observed frequent disconnects between the agendas of zoo visitors and the ecological goals of zoos. The staff and institutional commitments of zoos typically espouse ecological conservation. However, individuals who visit zoos may fail to perceive ecological principles and conservation commitments in their visit. In fact, they found that even individuals who were zoo-goers and who also made financial contributions to nonzoo ecological organizations may fail to link their ecology and conservation interests to zoo visits. Rather, zoos were seen simply as places to see animals up close.
Science-rich institutions have historically varied in the degree to which they take seriously the agenda of visitors (Doering, 1999). Viewing the visitor as “stranger” reflects a tradition in which the personal collections of gentry were used for their own individual investigations of natural history. When visitors are seen as strangers, the institution focuses primarily on its responsibility and interest in its collection or subject matter and not on the interests or needs of the visiting public. When visitors are viewed as “guests,” the institution is inclined to attend to their interests through educational and entertainment activities. Objects and ideas are still central to the institution’s values and work, but they also give significant credence to their visitors. For example, a visitor who reads a meteorite exhibit label may choose not to focus on fundamental scientific aspects of the text—the origin of the meteorite, evidence of impact, what it tells us about the universe. Instead, the visitor may focus on an aspect of the label that is personally meaningful to herself or to her family (e.g., the meteorite was found in Alberta, Canada) and use this observation as an opportunity to explore family identity (e.g., recalling that a family member was once in Alberta) rather than a strictly scientific meaning (Ellenbogen, 2003).
Designers and researchers have explored various ways to embrace visitors’ agendas, such as supporting visitors to write, speak, or draw their own ideas (McLean and Pollack, 2007) or by changing their scientific labels to embody a conversational tone more compatible with visitors’ own (McManus, 1989; Rand, 1990; Serrell, 1996). Both techniques have been shown, at least in some cases, to increase visitors’ engagement with scientific material.