Measuring the Impact of a Science Center on Its Community
In 1993, the California Museum of Science and Industry was closed down and demolished. Over the next few years, another facility rose from the ashes of its predecessor, and in 1998, the new and improved California Science Center opened its doors to the public. Since that day, the revamped Los Angeles museum has welcomed over 1 million visitors every year, a statistic that alone seems to justify the significant financial investment. However, despite the frequent and impassioned claims that museums act as important institutions for advancing public understanding of science, there is a distinct lack of empirical evidence to support as much. The authors of this article, then, saw the reopening of the California Science Center as an ideal opportunity to initiate a comprehensive longitudinal study, investigating just how impactful the new facility really is.
Upon approaching this study, the authors identified two significant challenges inherent in researching a science center’s influence on a community’s scientific literacy. The first of these challenges arises due to the complexity of learning as an incremental process. The misguided view of learning has, in the past, focussed on direct education as the sole provider of knowledge. Of course, we now acknowledge that education does not function in such a linear fashion, a fashion more consistent with the largely rejected deficit model than the contemporary dynamic model of science communication. Because we can attain information from such a wide variety of sources, it can be difficult to attribute a piece of knowledge to a single source. Even if someone does learn something from a museum, it would not be uncommon for that individual to assume it was just something they learnt at school.
The second major obstacle posed by this study was the place of a Science Center within a greater science education infrastructure. As a resource of free-choice learning, the California Science Center works as just one part of an entire educational system; therefore, there is the challenge of assessing the impact of just the Science Center alone. In order to do this, the researchers carried out two series of telephone interviews, one in 2000—just after the Center reopened—and the other in 2009. Each of these stages consisted of interviewing approximately 1000 randomly sampled adults from throughout the L.A. County.
The quantitative self-report data gathered from L.A. residents was used to gauge the impact on the community exclusive to the new Science Center over its first decade in commission. Their results found that, by 2009, around 45% of all adults living in L.A. had visited the California Science Center. Although, because this study only interviewed adults, and the center itself estimates that half of its visitors are children, the research really indicates that close to 60% of Los Angeles have visited the museum.
The responses given by the interviewees in relation to their own children attending the science center were extremely positive. Most adults claimed that visiting the center had increased their children’s understanding of, interest in and appreciation for science. Accounting for their own experiences at the California Science Center, the respondents also showed a majority of positive outcomes.
The researchers employed the use of mixed methods in carrying out this study, allowing respondents to provide qualitative information as well as quantitative. One major benefit of integrating qualitative observation relates back to that first issue of attributing learned information. The solution to this was establishing a “marker”. “Homeostasis” was chosen as a marker during telephone interviews, with the idea being that the ability to provide an acceptable definition for the physiological concept would act as a signal for learned information attributed to the California Science Center.
One of the major new exhibits installed in the Science Center in 1998 was a 50-foot animatronic woman named Tess. Along with her animated sidekick Walt, Tess was involved in a 10-minute show that described the importance of certain variables within the human body remaining constant. The researchers ascertained that homeostasis was an appropriate marker for this study, as the concept is relatively poorly recognised, even among those with an interest in science—according to prior studies done at the center. Following the interviews in 2000, the study found that around 40% of the L.A. public claimed to have heard of homeostasis, however, only 10% of respondents could provide a correct definition. Fast forward 9 years to the second round of interviews and—while the same proportion of the public said they were familiar with the term—20% of respondents were able to provide an acceptable definition of homeostasis.
The improved ability of respondents to define homeostasis over the course of this study provides convincing evidence that the California Science Center indeed has a positive impact on the L.A. public’s understanding of science. In fact, respondents rarely identified homeostasis as something learned during their visit(s) to the Center when prompted to provide examples. If anything, this suggests that the “homeostasis marker” data actually underreports the educational impact of the California Science Center, as the facility provides many more resources for learning, beyond just the Tess and Walt exhibit.
The authors of this study make sure to stress that this sort of research must be carried out in other institutions in order to really grasp the true impact of science centers. Regardless, the California Science Center stands as a great comprehensive case study, especially as it was able to integrate a sufficient range of demographics into the research. The results found that factors such as age and gender had no bearing on whether someone did or did not visit the center. Individuals with higher incomes were found to be more likely to visit the center, however, the relationship between sociodemographic characteristics and visitation was not strong.
Interestingly, lower income and minority parents were significantly more likely to agree that visits to the center enhanced their children’s chances for future success, and that the center strengthened their own understanding of and appreciation for science. The California Science Center is located within a very diverse area of L.A., and a wide variety of racially, ethnically and socio-economically differing individuals utilise the facility.
This aspect of the study really drives home how important accessibility is when it comes to something like a public science center. The results of this study alone prove that a facility for free-choice learning like a science museum can be an integral part of a community’s scientific understanding. The significance of a science center proves even greater when considering the relationship between childhood leisure activities and visitation in adulthood. Those respondents who carried out free-choice learning activities for leisure as a child were much more likely to visit the California Science Center than those who did not.
Exposure to an engaging institution like a science center at an early age may be a defining factor in one’s future interest in science. Ensuring that this opportunity is open to everyone should be of the utmost importance in developing free-choice learning facilities like the California Science Center in future.