Creating a Program to Deepen Family Inquiry at Interactive Science Exhibits

Creating a Program to Deepen Family Inquiry at Interactive Science Exhibits

In this article Allen and Gutwill cover the process of creating an inquiry based program for museums. They begin by discussing “inquiry” and why they use this as their focus. Inquiry-based activities encourage people to learn and practice important science skills, rather than just observe them. Their goal in this project was to create a program to help visitors engage with the interactive exhibits in a way that encourages them to ask their own questions. The program they designed had to be applicable to multiple different exhibits within the museum. With this in mind they made a list of criteria their program would have to fit in order to be useful: Accessible to visitors regardless of scientific background, appropriate for a range of ages and interests, enjoyable enough to be used outside the initial practice period, simple enough to learn in 20-30 minutes and to be remembered without much effort, and applicable across a broad range of exhibit types so that the program can be applied to any of them.

While this article focuses on one program and the process of developing it, some of the design aspects it goes into are relevant to what I’m planning to do with my exhibit. In particular the use of games to encourage active learning in both children and adults, and the criteria they came up with for these to be the most effective as learning tools. Although I should point out that while they refer to the elements of the program as “games” they are actually inquiry-related activities that follow a loosely game-style format. They do mention this in the footnotes but it would have been nice to see mentioned in the text itself as I found it a minor source of confusion during most of the reading.

The two activities that they did end up with were very simple, one focusing on co-operation between members of the family and the other focusing on individual learning.

The first, “Juicy Question”, got families to each come up with a “juicy” question about the exhibit and the group would choose one of the questions to investigate and find the answer to. The word “juicy” in this context is defined as a question which nobody knows the answer to at the beginning of the game, but which can be answered by experimenting with the exhibit. The example that they give in the article is of the exhibit where you get things to float on an airstream. The question “Why does the ball float in the airstream?” is not “juicy” because it can’t be answered simply by interacting with the exhibit. “Do some balls float higher than others in the airstream?” is a question that is “juicy” because the group can find out by interacting with the exhibit and answer the question for themselves. This game proved useful not only for children but also for the adults in the group. Because of the requirement that nobody in the group should know the answer to the question before the game, it encouraged adults to co-investigate rather than just observing or teaching.

The second game, “Hands Off”, was focused more on the individual rather than on teamwork. In this one a member of the group could call out “Hands off!” and the rest of the group would have to stop and listen to them, as they either made a proposal for something to try or point out a discovery they made. When done they could say “Hands on” and the group could go back to interacting with it. The authors point out that this game was popular with younger children because it gave them a way to be heard in groups where older siblings were more dominant. On the other hand one of the common criticisms they received about this game was that the visitors often found it frustrating having to wait before they could interact with the exhibit again.

Both of the activities they came up with in this project were successful and were able to fit the criteria they set out with. There were a lot of aspects of the design process and their findings throughout it that I will be able to apply to my own exhibit that I’m working on for Wai Ora, Mauri Ora although I believe I’ll hopefully have a bit more freedom in terms of structure because mine will only need to apply to one exhibit, rather than a whole museum’s worth. There is a lot to learn from the process they went through to create the two games in this program, what failed for them is just as useful to know as what worked. I recommend this reading to anyone looking to add a bit of inquiry-related interactivity to their exhibit.

For further reading about inquiry-based science learning and visitor research explore this link: https://www.exploratorium.edu/education/advancing-ideas-about-learning


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