volunteers’ learning. In the citizen-science case study in Chapter 2 (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), volunteers learned so much from their mentors that they developed enough expertise to contribute to scientific journals. Similar relationships between experts and novices are important elements of many after-school programs. For example, in a program called “Service at Salado,” middle school students, undergraduate student mentors, and university-based scientists worked together to learn about an urban riverbed habitat through classroom lessons and service and learning activities. At the end of the program the undergraduate mentors worked with the middle school students on products to benefit the urban riverbed habitat.11

In The Mind exhibition described in Chapter 3, museum designer Thogersen discovered that social interaction was key to learning about a concept as abstract as the mind. He notes that two friends could “prod the mind of the other,” creating a powerful learning experience for both visitors. Similarly, the benches at Cell Lab are organized in such a way to encourage dialogue, building on what research has confirmed—learning is enhanced through social interactions and conversation.


Conversations are a kind of social interaction that has been studied extensively, especially in museums and classrooms. Engaging in conversation and discussion promotes learning as well as provides a window into the thinking of individuals or groups. By listening to what people say, researchers can find out what learners know and understand, what emotions have been evoked by an experience, and what gaps in learning may remain. The importance of discourse in learning is broadly acknowledged across a range of subject areas and settings.12 In the classroom context, researchers have found that successful science education depends on the learners’ involvement in forms of communication and reasoning that models those of scientific communities.13 There is increasing interest in designing science programs, exhibitions, and other informal experiences that explicitly support conversation and use of scientific language.

Studying conversation in informal settings poses many challenges. Among the challenges are determining appropriate ways to record conversations (for example, setting up microphones at selected places throughout the setting versus asking visitors to wear microphones), determining where visitors are in the museum while they are talking (some researchers use “trackers” to follow visitors in the study to identify their movements), and obtaining clear recordings in a noisy

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