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Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments
“There is increasing interest among practitioners, researchers, and evaluators in documenting long-term learning from informal experiences.”
after the experience to see whether the experience had a lasting impact. The evaluation conducted for the IMAX film Coral Reef Adventure (Chapter 5) used this strategy and collected compelling information about how the film led to changes in attitudes and behaviors.
Another, more complex form of data collection is taping visitors’ conversations (or, as noted above in the WolfQuest example, analyzing written comments, blog contributions, etc.). As discussed in Chapter 4, this approach is logistically difficult to execute, and interpreting the data is equally challenging. Nonetheless, the information collected can be rich and revealing, indicating what visitors are focusing on, thinking and feeling, how they come to conclude or judge or make connections, and whether the experience has evoked powerful memories. The researchers investigating conversations in the frog exhibition at the Exploratorium by “listening in” on conversations between parents and children thought long and hard about how to gather data so that it would not interfere with the learning experience. The conversations revealed the full range of learning that occurred.
Precisely because of the challenges, collecting conversations is done less frequently than more traditional measures, such as exit interviews and surveys or tracking and timing methods, which are used to measure levels of engagement with an informal science experience. Typically used in museums, behaviors measured through structured observations like tracking and timing studies include what visitors pay attention to and for how long. In Cell Lab (Chapter 3), evaluators noted that visitors spent considerably more time than usual at the wet-lab benches. This finding illustrated that when learning is more complex, more time is needed—even if fewer people can go through the exhibit in one day. The measure does not, however, distinguish whether learners needed more time because of the complexity of the experience, or deliberately spent more time because the experience is more engaging and satisfying than other, similar experiences.