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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
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Museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums can employ media to support science learning in several ways. As discussed above, informal institutions for learning may offer access to media tools, like networked computers, libraries, and digital databases, to support users’ self-defined agenda or deploy prepackaged media products, like giant screen films and television programs in their exhibit spaces. In this section, we focus on ways in which media components are built into floor-based exhibitions and alternative virtual spaces that extend visitors’ experiences and serve other visitors who do not visit physical locations.
Ucko and Ellenbogen (2008, p. 245) indicate
interactive exhibits offer visitors the opportunity to explore real (and sometimes simulated) scientific phenomena, as well as aspects of historic and state-of-the-art technology. Interactives based on classical physics (e.g., force and motion) tend to be the most widespread because the phenomena lend themselves readily to direct visitor manipulation, although exhibits based on biology (e.g., Colson, 2005) and chemistry (e.g., Ucko, Schreiner, and Shakhashiri, 1986) have also been developed. Because the term “interactive” encompasses an extremely wide range of experiences, from simple tasks explored by individuals to complex tasks requiring multiple collaborators (Heath and vom Lehn, 2008), it is difficult to develop generalized findings about how they support or contribute to learning.
Science centers have begun to explore the use of newer technologies to create augmented and virtual environments (Roussou et al., 1999). Research on their impact, like other areas of technology in informal environments, is dominated by usability studies and has little to say about learning outcomes or the specific qualities of digitally augmented environments. An exception is a series of exploratory case studies by Roussou and colleagues (e.g., Roussou et al., 1999) that have begun to explore how collaboration in virtual reality (VR) environments can support learning of scientific design concepts (Strand 2).
The worlds of virtual reality (a computer-simulated environment) and augmented reality (an environment that is a combination of real-world and computer-generated information) pose particular problems for integrating interactivity. How can people who visit designed spaces in a group together share the same VR experience? What distinctions are made between mere navigational interaction and control over the VR environment? These two problems weaken many of the existing efforts to measure learning in VR environments. Participants report a high level of engagement and enjoyment,