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Visitor StudiesFront-End Studies

This front-end study was prepared for an October 1997 workshop held at the ASTC annual conference in St. Louis, Chemistry Exhibits That Work.

Front-End Analysis to Assess Interest in Chemistry
Contributed by by Maryann McDermott Jones and Lisa McQuail, Capital Children's Museum

Front-end analysis was designed to assess attitudinal response to a planned chemistry-related exhibit at the Capital Children’s Museum, and was structured to account for two factors specific to the museum:

  1. 70% of the children who currently visit the museum are under the age of 9, a sizable proportion of whom are of preschool age;
  2. Financial sponsors of the Chemical Science Center, the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association, have directed that the target audience of this exhibit be middle school students

As a result, a survey, exploring children’s understanding of what chemistry is and how it relates to their personal lives, 70 children, ranging in age from 5-16, were interviewed. The demographics of the pool were:
Age 9 and under: 44%
Age 10 and over: 56%
Median age: 9
Average age: 9 yrs. 7 mo.
Mode: 12 (14 individuals)
Male: 54%
Female: 40%
Sex Unidentified: 6%

More than half of those interviewed specifically identified chemistry as a branch of science related to producing "chemicals," which were variously described as being medicines, things used in your yard to grow grass or kill bugs, things which exploded, or playdough and slime. Ten of the 70 children noted that chemistry involved mixing things "to see what you would get," and an additional 10% associated the field with experimenting, testing, finding answers to problems, and inventing.

Fully 73% initially stated that they believed chemistry was a part of everyday life, a proportion which went up to 85% by the end of the interview. Only one child, a female, said "it’s part of the classroom, not life."

Each interviewee was presented with three examples of materials or products made by chemical processes, or phenomena related to the chemical properties of the materials involved. They were asked if they had ever wondered about the phenomena or properties demonstrated in these examples, and then later, having explained something about the chemistry involved, whether it would interest them to explore that kind of topic at a chemistry-related museum exhibit.

Number of SubjectsExampleWondered About BeforeWant to Explore in a Chemistry Exhibit
32 What about rubber makes balls bounce 40% 65%
What properties make boats float 59% 69%
What makes toothpastes foam, tingle, brighten teeth 31% 59%
38 What kinds of things burn, and why 58% 92%
How materials are recycled 58% 71%
How GAK and slime are made and why they behave as they do 63% 89%

Clearly such topics would be attractive to the exhibit’s target audience. In addition, the children were asked to identify other chemistry-related topics which they would like to learn about in such an exhibit. Of those who cited preferences, the top three subjects identified were: Rockets and fireworks (59%), Consumer Products made through Chemistry (47%), and the Chemistry of Cooking (44%).

Broader-based community perceptions regarding chemistry were examined through a self-administered survey of 35 adults. The demographics of the sample were:
63% female
28% male
71% with at least some college education
29% with graduate or professional degrees
57% had taken chemistry in either high school (37%) or college (20%)
63% from Washington, D.C. metropolitan area
71% of their children were aged 9 or under

This largely college-educated sample evidenced rather detailed understanding of what chemistry entails, and what concepts are explored in its study.

34% identified chemistry as the interaction between materials (including specific use of the term "reaction," or reference to either breaking materials into constituent parts or combining materials to make new substances
25% called it the study of chemicals, using terms such as "elements," "compounds," and "ions."

Other cited descriptions included: study of states of matter, identified as solids, liquids and gases; and the composition of living and non-living things. Only two imprecise or vague definitions were given: "complicated science" and "liquids and stuff."

While 37% cited medicine, and 23% pharmacy, as professions requiring the use of chemistry, respondents also identified cooking, manufacturing (of textiles, dyes, plastics, semi-conductors, metal plating and cosmetics), agriculture, forensics and firefighting, and photography as activities and jobs which employ knowledge and application of chemical concepts.

When asked, 80% indicated they consider chemistry to be a part of their everyday lives; 34% identified chemicals (water and air) and chemical reactions as necessary to sustain life, and 23% noting its role in cooking and the digestion of food. Only 14% of those questioned do not recognize chemistry as relevant to daily life.

In addition to those mentioned, this group identified consumer products such as cleaning agents (50% of those responding); cosmetics and personal care products, synthetics, such as plastics and polymers, and medicines (23% each) as “chemicals” they used everyday. 20% named specific elements and compounds which were part of the environment. Furthermore, they cited specific examples of the cooking of food and various oxidation processes (rusting, combustion, bleaching), as well as photosynthesis and acid rain, as chemical processes they encountered regularly. 20% used the water cycle as an example of changes in state which were part of their everyday lives.

While 34% did not respond to the question, 83% of those who did indicated they would be interested in learning more about chemistry, particularly through safe, hands-on experiments for all ages. There were more specific comments (13) describing chemistry as interesting, exciting, creative, innovative, a fun way to learn through experiments, and "everyone should know something about it," than those which were negative (10), associating chemistry with boredom, fire, danger, bad smells, air and water pollution, "memorizing facts which were forgotten as soon as the test was over" and other bad images of high school. Significantly, every one of the negative comments came from a woman.

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Preliminary Assessment of Central Concept
"States of Matter and the Changes They Undergo"

The suggested central concept for the CMA Chemical Science Center, "States of Matter and the Changes they Undergo," emerged from a review of the elementary school science curricular guides of every major public school division in metropolitan Washington.

To test the age and concept appropriateness of an exhibit designed around this theme, 13 children aged 5-15 were presented with two cups, one filled with ice cubes, the other with water; and an electric kettle filled with water, which they were directed to imagine being plugged in and heating. They were asked to name and describe the materials before them, identifying what was similar about them and what was different.

In general, the responses fairly consistently conformed with expectations derived from grade-level curricular standards. They are outlined below; responses which were more sophisticated than anticipated are italicized and red-lined.

5 3: 1 boy,
2 girls
Ice and water readily identified; ice described as cold, hard, not moving; water pours; if ice left out, it would turn into water (idea that this was adding heat, was not mentioned); place water in refrigerator and it will freeze; When wet hand in waved in air, it gets dry. Term "steam" was not used; rather "cloud," "foam"; knew it could "burn" you. Terms solids, liquids, gases unknown; presence of air is recognized when it moves.
6 2 boys, 1 from Bahrain Ice, water, steam identified; ice "melts" into water when you add heat; steam described as looking like "smoke," though with more questioning its color was identified as white, not grey or dark; there’s "less" (volume) when ice melts into water; "sun takes water from the sea into the clouds and then it rains," though there was some question whether steam could be turned back into water. Terms solids, liquids, and gases applied to each state of water; solids have the shape of what they are; gases can go anywhere, “fill up the world”; can see them in liquids as bubbles.
7 1/2 1 boy from Bahrain When steam hits a mirror, which is cold, it fogs up and then water comes off in drops if you write your name on the mirror; adding cold turns steam into water, and water into ice; adding heat turns ice into water, water into steam. Liquids take the shape of their container.
8 1 Spanish-speaking girl Ice, water identified; steam identified as "smoke." Terms solid, liquid, gas unknown
9 3: 2 girls, 1 Asian-American; 1 African-American boy Steam identified with boiling, vigorous motion; if steam isn’t kept hot, it will turn back into water; before ice starts to melt, it isn’t wet, it’s dry and will stick to skin. Solids, liquids, gases all identified by temperature: cold, room temperature, hot; solids labeled as "still"; dry ice is a solid which turns into a gas, called carbon dioxide; air is a gas and air causes bubbles in liquids
10 2 girls; 1 Hispanic Steam called water vapor; ice, water and steam are all made of water; water "evaporates" to become water vapor; "when water vapor gathers together into a bunch and becomes too heavy, it rains." Oxygen is a gas. "Matter" is various things which have weight
15 1 girl Steam is turned back into water by taking away energy, or heat; steam is "little pieces of water in the air." Matter is anything which has mass and occupies space

In addition, the effect of the proposed exhibit name What’s the Matter? was explored:

  • The six-year-old boys said it meant: "What’s happening?" (Evidence of curiosity?); or "Choosing between one of two or more things."
  • One nine-year-old African-American boy said it signaled that "Someone is crying or hurt; something is wrong."
  • One fifteen-year-old girl thought it was a good play on words, a good joke.


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