In a century focused increasingly on customization, museums are trying to create experiences that give visitors more control over what they learn. For example, studies (e.g., Borun and Dritsas, 1997) have shown that families learn effectively with exhibits that are open-ended, with multiple options for interaction rather than just “pushing a button.” Unfortunately, many visitors don’t take full advantage of such open-ended exhibits because they lack the skills to do in-depth scientific inquiry. This project tries to teach families such skills.
At the same time, museums endeavor to create educational field trips that utilize the free-choice nature of museums (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008). By teaching field trip groups a process for doing inquiry, we provide an educational structure that encourages students to pursue their own questions and investigations at any exhibit they choose.
What is inquiry? Scientific inquiry is a loosely defined set of skills that scientists use to understand the natural world: observation, exploration, hypothesizing, experimenting, creating models, arguing, explaining, making inferences, etc. These skills are recognized as a key component of scientific literacy in the National Science Standards (National Research Council, 2000).
Why teach inquiry? These skills are powerful tools that learners can apply in a range of situations to better understand the natural world. They can help groups use interactive science exhibits more deeply, and also give them practice at some of the key activities of science.
We targeted two audiences for this project
- Families with children aged 8-13, since they are old enough to understand inquiry skills, and constitute a large part of our regular visiting audience.
- School field trip groups of children in grades 4 through 7, and their chaperones.
The project goals are to:
- Create a new genre of program where groups can learn scientific inquiry skills during a brief visit to the museum;
- Characterize the key features of such a program;
- Study the impact of the program on visitors’ skills, compared with families who did not go through the program (experimental study design with control groups).