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Visitor StudiesScientific Method and Process

Children's Museum of Indianapolis
Indianapolis, Indiana Study conducted by Leona Schauble, University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Karol Bartlett, Children's Museum of Indianapolis

Purpose and methods:
This ambitious project, to develop a new science gallery for 6- to 10-year-old children and their families, began with the conviction that it was essential to understand existing research about how children think and learn about science and, where appropriate, to initiate new research. Two questions provided a framework for a series of studies on a number of topics relevant to the exhibition: "What do elementary-aged children need to learn about science and how do they learn about it?" and "How can a museum exhibition support children's understanding of the 'big ideas' in science?" Studies examined children's understanding of experimentation, fossils, and simple machines and gears. Methods, which varied from study to study, included in-depth interviews (both baseline and follow-up), in-depth interviews in conjunction with an appropriate task or object to handle, and focused observations.

Sample size:
Sample sizes varied from 17 to 43
Studies were conducted with 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th graders

Major findings:
The science framework that resulted from these studies provided that the gallery should offer opportunities for visitors to participate in science, practice scientific thinking skills and strategies, and understand central science concepts. It was also decided that a "funnel" gallery design be adopted featuring a wide array of entry-level options for browsing visitors and successively narrower and deeper learning options for visitors spending more time.

In the fossil study, all but one of the children had heard of fossils, but their ability to recognize fossils and their understanding of how fossils form and what they're made of was limited. In the study on gears, all children understood the role of connection in transmission of gear motion, but older children (5th graders) were more likely than younger children (2nd graders) to reason about mechanisms involving part-whole (teeth-gear) relations. Younger children tended to rely on general, non-mechanistic heuristics, for example, stating that some gears simply followed other gears. Similarly, older children were more likely to explain directionality of gears in terms of casual mechanisms involving pushing and pulling of gear teeth, or in terms of a simple empirical rule of opposite direction. As these selected findings suggest, this research was very theoretical and its interpretation and application to the exhibition developed through many meetings with museum staff.

Other studies on Scientific Method and Process:

Exploration Zone
Field Museum
Chicago, Illinois
Study conducted by Deborah Perry and Emily Forland, Selinda Research Associates, Chicago, Illinois
May - September 1995

Purpose: To examine visitors' understandings of the research science that goes on behind the scenes at the museum for development of an exhibition that was then put on hold

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

Findings: Visitors thought about what goes on behind the scenes mainly in terms of exhibits, did not think much or accurately about the museum's research function, and were not very curious about it without some prompting. Visitors greatly underestimated the size of the museum's research collection and had little understanding of its role in scientific research.

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