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Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments
Although interactivity has many benefits for learning, it should be used strategically to further the goals of the experience. In fact, research conducted at the Exploratorium in San Francisco reveals that more interactive features are not necessarily better. In one study, museum developers created three different versions of an exhibit called Glowing Worms. One was highly interactive (with changeable lighting, focus, and dish location) with live specimens; a second was less interactive (with changeable lighting and focus) with live specimens; and a third was noninteractive (with prerecorded video) with no live specimens. The results of the study showed that visitors who saw one of the two interactive exhibits with live specimens stayed longer, enjoyed the exhibit more, and were able to reconstruct more relevant details of their experience than those who saw the noninteractive exhibit. Yet the researchers found no significant differences between the experiences of the visitors at the less interactive exhibit than at the more interactive one.11
These results suggest that adding more features does not necessarily enhance the experience. Extrapolating from this study, Exploratorium staff noted that sometimes too many interactive features can lead to misunderstandings or cause visitors to feel overwhelmed. In fact, these researchers think that there may be an optimal degree of interactivity, which results in a satisfying learning experience for the majority of participants.
The following case study of a long-term exhibition called Cell Lab, located at the Science Museum of Minnesota, illustrates how these strategies—juxtaposing different ideas to spur reflection, presenting multiple ways to engage with concepts, and interactivity—can prompt learning. Divided into a series of stations, Cell Lab offers visitors the opportunity to use real laboratory equipment to conduct short experiments as a way to learn more about cell biology, genetics, microbiology, and enzymes. The opportunity to have such an authentic, or real-world, experience is one of the hallmarks of informal learning environments.