Methods of Researching Strand 3 Outcomes

Developmental studies based on observations of children’s spontaneous behavior show that their approach to natural phenomena shows similarities to science: exploratory, inquiry-oriented, evidence-seeking (Beals, 1993; Callanan and Oakes, 1992). Controlled studies result in similar findings, indicating that everyday thinking entails reasoning about causality and complex relations among variables as discussed in Chapter 4.

This strand of outcomes is almost always assessed by examining the participant’s learning process rather than a pre-post measure of outcome. This is because the only way to do a pre-post measurement requires that learners demonstrate what they are able to do in the “pre” condition. Pretesting requires that learners be put on the spot in a manner that is inconsistent with the leisure-oriented and learner-centered nature of most informal environments. Instead, skills are usually assessed as they are practiced, and the assumption is made that practicing a skill leads to greater expertise over time.

Research focused on assessing practical and discursive inquiry skills in informal environments often rely on video and audio recordings made during activities that are later analyzed for evidence of such skills as questioning, interpreting, inferring, explaining, arguing, and applying ideas, methods, or conjectures to new situations (see Appendix B for a discussion of video- and audiotaping). For example, Humphrey and Gutwill (2005), analyzing the kinds of questions visitors asked each other and the ways they answered them, found that visitors using “active prolonged engagement” exhibits asked more questions that focused on using or understanding the exhibits than visitors using the more traditional planned discovery exhibits. Randol (2005), assessing visitors’ use of scientific inquiry skills at a range of interactive exhibits, found that the inquiry could be characterized equally well by holistic measures or small-scale behavioral indicators (such as “draws a conclusion”) as long as the sophistication of the behaviors was measured rather than their number. Meisner et al. (2007) and vom Lehn, Heath, and Hindmarsh (2001, 2002) studied short fragments of video to reveal the ways in which exhibits enable particular forms of coparticipation, modeling, and interactions with strangers. Researchers have used video analysis to investigate a large range of behaviors related to how learners make sense of the natural and physical world, including interacting appropriately with materials and showing others how to do something. Stevens and colleagues (Stevens, 2007; Stevens and Hall, 1997; Stevens and Toro-Martell, 2003) used a video annotation system on the museum floor to prompt visitors to reflect on how they and others interacted with an interactive science display, leaving a durable video trace of their activity and reflections for others to explore and discuss as they come to the display. The traces then serve as data for subsequent interactional analysis of learning.

Researchers have also asked learners after participation in science learn-

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