We tested the impact of the program to teach families and field trip groups inquiry skills, by setting up two identical controlled experiments (also known as a Randomized Controlled Trial, RCT). We compared the behaviors of families and field trip groups who had learned:
- the Juicy Question game
- the Hands Off game
- a lively description of the exhibit’s history and science content (Exhibit Tour Control)
- no game at all (Pure Control)
The goal was to determine whether the games helped groups to do in-depth inquiry at a new exhibit.
Family Study: We studied 50 families in each of the four conditions described above (two types of games, and two types of control conditions), or 200 famillies altogether. The families were recruited from the museum floor, and used the exhibits in a quiet lab space at the back of the museum, so we could video and audio record their use of exhibits for detailed analysis.
All families recruited for the study were non-members, with at least one adult, at least one child aged 8-13, and no children younger than 8. They had never used the exhibits before.
Field Trip Study: We studied 46 field trip groups in each of the four conditions described above, or 184 groups altogether. We recruited field trip groups by contacting 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th grade teachers who had already reserved a field trip to the Exploratorium. Amenable teachers arrived at the museum with parent-signed consent forms for each child and pre-selected participant groups comprised of 5-7 students and one chaperone.
What Groups Did
A group (family or field trip) only participated in one version of the study. Each group came into the lab, used a “pre-test” exhibit as they normally would, followed by two new exhibits at which they learned to play one of the inquiry games (unless they were in one of the two control conditions, in which case they used the exhibits without learning a game). Finally, the group used a “post-test” exhibit on their own, playing the inquiry game if they had learned one, or using the exhibit normally if they were in one of the control conditions.
Assessing Whether Skills Had Been Learned
All groups were video and audio recorded using the exhibits. The recordings were later coded (using Studiocode software) by coders who were “blind” (i.e., did not know the nature of the study or the experiment, so were not biased toward the groups who learned the inquiry games). 10% of all video data were coded by two coders to determine level of inter-coder agreement.
The researchers counted the following behaviors by families and field trip groups, at both the first exhibit (pre) and the last exhibit (post)
- The number of questions asked
- The number of interpretations of results
- The length of time a group chose to spend at the exhibit
- The degree of physical and verbal collaboration by members of a group
- The coherence of investigations – i.e., the number of times a group built their investigations so that one followed from the previous one in a coherent way
The researchers interviewed group members after using the exhibit, and again three weeks after their visit (by phone). They assessed
- Each groups’s level of enjoyment and learning with the exhibits
- Their memory of the experience after 3 weeks
- Whether the group members had applied their skills to other exhibits after leaving the research lab
- Whether group members had applied their skills to phenomena beyond the museum