New research has found educators at informal science learning sites such as zoos promote interest and learning among visitors of all ages

Educators at museums, zoos and aquariums boost learning

Educators at informal science learning sites such as science museums, zoos and aquariums promote interest and learning among visitors of all ages, new research has found.

The study, which is a collaboration between North Carolina State University and the University of Exeter, shows that visits to learning sites are one of the key ways in which young people and their family members can engage with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outside of formal education.

The researchers explored differences in how much visitors to six different learning sites in the UK and US reported that they learned from their experience of an exhibit and their interest in the exhibit topic.

They then looked at whether these factors differed based on whether the participant interacted with a youth educator (aged 14-18 years old), an adult educator (19+ years old), or only interacted with the exhibit itself.

Results show that children aged 5-8 said they had learned more and were more interested than participants in middle childhood or adolescence.

Meanwhile all young visitors combined (5-17 years old) who interacted with a youth educator reported greater interest and learning than those who only interacted with the exhibit itself.

Similarly, adult visitors who interacted with a youth educator reported greater interest and learning than adult visitors who interacted with only the exhibit and adult visitors who interacted with an adult educator.

The findings also show that older participants answered more factual recall questions about the exhibit correctly than younger participants.

“Interestingly, participants in middle childhood (9-11 years old) answered more questions correctly when they interacted with a youth educator, compared to those who interacted with the exhibit alone or were assisted by an adult educator,” said co-author of the study Dr Luke McGuire, of the University of Exeter.

“Together these findings emphasise the important role that youth educators can play in learning sites – promoting interest and learning amongst visitors of all ages, along with greater factual recall of exhibit content amongst visitors in middle childhood.”

Co-author Professor Adam Rutland, of the University of Exeter, said: “Our results document the benefits visiting learning sites has on children, adolescents and adults, as well as highlighting the important role that youth and adult educators play in these settings.

“These sites can play an important role in engaging the public with STEM and potentially encourage people to pursue a STEM career in the future – a much-needed outcome in our society.”

The paper, entitled "Interest and Learning in Informal Science Learning Sites: Differences in Experiences with Different Types of Educators", is published in the journal PLOS One.

It is written by experts from North Carolina State University, University of Exeter, University of Cambridge, Centre of the Cell, Queen Mary University of London, University of South Carolina, Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens, Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center and EdVenture.

This project is supported in the UK by the Wellcome Trust and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and in the US by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Funding for this project is part of the “Science Learning+” program.

Date: 23 July 2020

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