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Visitor StudiesBiology

Ecosystems and Interdependence
Shedd Aquarium
Chicago, Illinois
Study conducted by Randi Korn & Associates, Alexandria, Virginia
November 1995

Purpose and methods:
The study examined language and knowledge regarding natural systems and the interrelationships within systems. In-depth interviews with supporting visuals were conducted with visitors to the aquarium and with people who do not typically visit the aquarium. The three visuals were of a fish; a fish in its habitat, showing interdependencies within that habitat; and an ecosystem, showing interdependencies within the various habitats found in that ecosystem.

Sample size:
41 aquarium visitors
31 people who do not typically visit the aquarium

Major findings:
When visitors were asked to describe the habitat illustration, more than half described the drawing in language indicating they had an understanding of the interactions among the organisms depicted in the drawing and the way each organism supports others. In contrast, nearly two-thirds of non-visitors simply named the different organisms or described the overt behaviors depicted in the illustration without mentioning the relationships among the different animals and plants in that habitat.

All visitors and nonvisitors had heard of the term "habitat" before, and three-quarters of the visitors and more than half of the non-visitors were able to define it accurately as a place where animals and other organisms live. Additionally many visitors and non-visitors realized that each element in the habitat illustration is dependent on other elements, judging by their response to questions about the effect of removing either the plants or a single species of animal, such as a fish or a bird, from the habitat. Specifically, all interviewees recognized the importance of plants to the well-being of a habitat, and, even if they could not elaborate on the reasons why, all interviewees stated that the animals in the illustration would die without plants.

Visitors and non-visitors differed in their understanding of the implications of removing a single species, such as a blackbird, from a habitat. Slightly more than half of the visitors saw connections between the bird and its environment. The majority of visitors and non-visitors both recognized that they are a part of the ecosystem. When asked about impacts on ecosystems, generally, and their impact, specifically, nearly all visitors described how humans and natural processes both affect the ecosystem. This contrasted with the finding that most non-visitors spoke only about how humans affect the ecosystem, and few discussed how the ecosystem is affected by both humans and natural processes.

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African Savanna
Metropolitan Toronto Zoo
Toronto, Ontario
Study conducted by project manager Paul Harpley

Purpose: To study environmental knowledge and perceptions of East African landscapes for 30-acre redevelopment project

Methods: Visitor perception questionnaire and slide presentation

Findings: Visitor knowledge supported traditional conceptions of nature and savannas. Visitors also possessed dominant knowledge of large mammals, felt that poaching was the greatest problem facing African wildlife, and supported naturalistic exhibit design. Visitors had little cultural knowledge of African people and culture, a potentially important area of education for the new exhibit project.

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American Museum of Natural History
New York, New York
Study conducted by museum staff evaluator Ellen Giusti

Purpose: To determine prior knowledge and level of interest in the subject of biodiversity for an upcoming exhibition

Methods: Surveys, focus groups, and interviews

Findings: Visitors said that loss of natural habitats worldwide is the second most serious issue facing us today (most serious was spread of AIDS virus). Most favored conservation measures to preserve large mammals, but were quite unaware of insects' importance to life on Earth. While visitors thought human population explosion is a threat to biodiversity, they did not know what world population is today or what it is projected to be in the future.

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Franklin Institute Science Museum
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
February 1994
Study conducted by Minda Borun, director of research and evaluation; and Margaret Chambers, consultant

Purpose: To collect preliminary information about visitors' knowledge and perceptions of biotechnology to aid in exhibit design and to provide a basis for later visitor studies and exhibit evaluation

Methods: Questionnaire

Findings: Most visitors had heard of genes, DNA, and genetic engineering, but were unable to define or describe these terms in detail. They did not have strong interest in the topic.

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Breaking Ground
Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Brooklyn Children's Museum
Brooklyn, New York
Study conducted by Randi Korn & Associates, Alexandria, Virginia
July 1994
Purpose: To determine children's knowledge of and interest in plants to help the two institutions develop exhibitions as part of the Breaking Ground: Plants and People project, which ultimately resulted in a traveling exhibition Wild About Plants
Methods: Interviews
Findings: Children had a basic understanding of plants and spoke about them in simple words and phrases; they could identify some plant parts, especially parts of trees.

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Hidden Kingdoms
New York Hall of Science
Corona Park, New York
May 1988
Study conducted by Samuel Taylor, formerly of the museum staff

Purpose: To gather information about the public's general knowledge of and interest in microorganisms, with findings to be used in developing a permanent exhibition

Methods: Group and individual interviews

Findings: Visitors had scattered information about microorganisms and germs and little in-depth knowledge.

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Human Biology
Arizona Science Center
Phoenix, Arizona
December 1995
Study conducted by Laura Martin, director of education and research; and Rosemary F. Leary, educational consultant

Purpose: To determine public interest in biology topics, explore public attitudes toward various biology topics, and gather information on public conceptions of science topics related to biology exhibits planned for new science center

Methods: Focus groups and interviews

Findings: Adults and children had fragmented knowledge of the biology topics explored, were able to use terms in only a superficial way, and were unable to extend their understandings to everyday, real-world experiences.

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Invertebrate Hall
California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco, California
Study conducted by staff evaluator Lisa Hubbell Mackinney

Purpose: To explore visitors' views, understandings, and interests about invertebrates for a permanent exhibition.

Methods: Interviews with 54 museum visitors

Findings: 48 percent gave only correct examples of animals that were invertebrates, 30 percent only incorrect examples, 17 percent no examples, and 6 percent both correct and incorrect examples. Of 10 proposed topics, those ranked most interesting were species I've never seen, behavior, evolution, and adaptation to habitats; those ranked least interesting were diversity between species, fossil history, and scientific research

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Life Underground
Field Museum
Chicago, Illinois
Study conducted by Deborah Perry and Cecilia Garibay, Selinda Research Associates, Chicago, Illinois
February-April 1996

Purpose: To help illuminate visitors' understandings of life in the soil in preparation for a new permanent exhibition

Methods: Naturalistic in-depth, open-ended interviews and modified card-sort activity

Findings: Visitors were surprised that the museum would bring up the topic of soil, but found the proposed "underground walk-through" compelling. Most found many soil science concepts difficult and uninteresting.

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Mating Games: Reproduction and Survival in the Aquatic World
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey, California
Study conducted by People, Places & Design Research, Northampton, Massachusetts (Jeff Hayward, project director)

Purpose:To anticipate visitors' expectations, knowledge, and interests regarding the subject of reproduction. The study explored issues such as visitors' comfort with the subject, including sensitive topics and terms, as well as the relationship between the theme and human population dynamics.

Methods: Focus groups stratified by age and group composition, plus a survey of more than 400 aquarium visitors

Findings: Different types of visitors perceived this topic quite differently, and the audience was found to be more knowledgeable than expected. Defining reproduction broadly (from courtship to parenting) was found to provide a good context, as long as it would be clear to families with young children which parts of the exhibition contained sensitive material.

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Planet of the Jellies
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey, California
Study conducted by People, Places & Design Research, Northampton, Massachusetts (Jeff Hayward, project director)

Purpose: To guide the team developing an exhibition about jellyfish by providing information about interests and knowledge among visitors and potential visitors, by assessing the extent of misconceptions about jellies, and by exploring the reactions to alternative exhibit development approaches

Methods: Interviews with aquarium visitors, post-visit questionnaires, and "on the street" intercept interviews in another city

Findings: Widespread perceptions that jellies are worthless blobs or dangerous creatures to be avoided suggested a significant challenge in attracting visitors. However, the research identified "beauty" as the exhibit development theme with the most potential to generate interest.

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California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco, California
Conducted by staff evaluator Lisa Hubbell Mackinney

Purpose: To explore visitors' views and understandings about salmon, watersheds in general, and issues surrounding fishes' endangerment for a traveling exhibition on salmon

Methods: Interviews with 281 visitors at five museums in different regions of the U.S.

Findings: More than 90 percent of respondents said there was a connection between the environment and the economy; slightly more than half said they eat fish regularly, and that they have no other connection to salmon; 51 percent said the existence of salmon is threatened, just over a third of them citing pollution and a third overfishing as causes.

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National Museum of Natural History
Washington, DC
Conducted by Randi Korn & Associates, Alexandria, Virginia
March-April 1995

Purpose: To better understand visitors' perceptions and baseline knowledge about tigers and the conservation of tigers in preparation for the installation of an exhibition

Methods: Standardized questionnaire and in-depth interviews

Findings: Visitors had only an elementary knowledge of animal conservation and even less knowledge about tigers, their lives, and their survival needs. Visitors often confused tigers with lions and other mammals and frequently guessed when they were asked details of tigers' lives. Additionally, visitors did not associate Asian countries with animal conservation issues or tigers. However, visitors' ratings of statements about tigers showed that visitors will be more responsive to tiger-related issues if they understand the consequences and see how the consequences might affect their daily lives.

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World of Life
California Science Center
Los Angeles, California
Study conducted by John Falk, Institute for Learning Innovation, Annapolis, Maryland
May - June 1994

Purpose: To investigate visitors' preconceptions, attitudes, and levels of knowledge about cell biology and life processes, ultimately assisting in the development of one of four core exhibition areas in the new science center

Methods: Semi-structured interviews

Findings: Visitors had a rudimentary understanding of life functions, but primarily a sense of what an organism needs to do "externally" in order to survive, such as finding food and protecting itself from the environment and other organisms. Most visitors did not understand what an organism needed to do "internally" to survive, such as respiration and photosynthesis.


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