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Yeah, But Did They Learn?

  • by Guest Blogger on September 18, 2013
    By Laura Bruursema

    At The Tech, kids can shake in a simulated earthquake, cycle to power a light bulb and then race to catch interactive digital butterflies. Most weekdays, school trips fill the museum floor with boisterous groups of kids, shrieking and laughing throughout the museum. Watching one group run by, a Gallery Staff member noted, “They sure are having fun!”

    Museum visits are fun for kids. But, do they also learn? Designed spaces like museums actually offer unique, informal contexts for science and technology learning and are very different from structured, learning outcomes-driven classroom learning. Unlike self-directed or everyday experiences in science or technology, museums rely on media and shared physical space to create opportunities to learn socially and collaboratively.

    Affect, Identification & Persistence

    So, what kind of learning does take place in science and technology museums? While there are certainly opportunities to gain fact-based knowledge in a museum, the goal of informal science and technology learning is not just to acquire facts or master concepts but also to achieve the less defined, but important goal of impacting perceptions and affect, or feelings about science and technology learning (Dierking & Falk, 1994). I asked a San Mateo father of third and first graders on the museum floor what his kids were learning at The Tech. He wasn’t sure that his kids mastered concrete science facts during their visit and thinks that afterward they are “still processing the result,” but it’s “important to light the fire.” Museums offer important opportunities to experience excitement, spark interest, and inspire motivation to learn more.

    Another benefit of developing positive feelings about science and technology topics is the very important aspect of developing identities as science learners (Bell et al., 2009) and preparing for future learning. Even brief, informal experiences can be “sticky” experiences that stick with the learner long after the encounter, prompting the pursuit of self-directed learning on the topic or the likelihood of being more receptive to learning when the topic is encountered in a future, more formal, setting (Bransford & Schwartz, 1999).

    In my interviews, several girls mentioned interests or pursuing projects on their own long after having had fun or novel learning experiences. One San Jose 5th grader reported wanting to pursue a project on "plants and animals and looking at animal bones" prompted by a visit from a local archaeologist several months earlier. Another described a self-directed catapult project she built at home, inspired by her involvement in The Tech Challenge. Part of the novelty of the museum experience was the sheer size and grandeur of the space, which made a big impression on several young visitors. When asked what she liked most about taking part in The Tech Challenge, one San Jose 5th grader told me, “It looked huge!” Fun, new, impressive science and technology experiences stuck with these girls, nudging them toward seeing themselves as science learners and designers and to pursue more learning on their own.

    Museums and Community Learning

    We know that science and technology museum experiences may inspire future learning and change self-perceptions and identity as science and technology learners. The literature and my experience interviewing and observing kids and families on the museum floor suggests that museum learning, compared to other informal experiences, is unique in that it is designed to provide multiple opportunities to engage in a learning experience publically and socially.  

    Self-Pacing & Variety

    A large space with a variety of exhibits lends itself to exploration and empowering visitors to control their pace through the learning experience (Kisiel & Anderson, 2010). As a San Mateo father told me, his kids “tend to be more interested when they make the rules” and are sometimes turned off if the learning experience is too structured. While this may not be the ideal scenario for all types of learning, museums can empower kids (and adults) to direct their attention and time to what interests and excites them at their own pace, setting them up for more learning later.

    Community Participation

    Well designed museums are interactive, offering multiple venues to engage with learners. Not only are their media diverse, but museums support socially mediated conversations and interactions that can lead to learning (Dierking & Falk, 1994). These conversations and interactions rely on participation from a diverse community within and outside of the museum. Kids learn with adult caregivers, peers, and teachers and also through sustaining partnerships that can lead to cross-pollination, extending singular, exciting museum experiences to the home setting, in school, and elsewhere in the community (Bell et al., 2009).

    Family & Community Role

    Museums are ideal for supporting inquiry through hands-on activities and embodied experiences and for practicing creative inquiry and seeing it modeled by others. Unlike in school, where kids always learn with peers their own age, museums provide opportunities for multi-generational learning. Parents and caregivers can play a unique role in facilitating collaborative learning at the museum and extending it at home (Gutwill & Allen, 2011). While they could serve as learning partners in museums, they often take on different roles. Over many hours on the museum floor, I identified three broad types of parent roles:

    Technical Helper & Time Manager
    Rather than facilitating learning experiences, parents often end up serving as technical and logistical support in museums, especially during weekday school trips at The Tech (ibid). Parents offer advice on such things as maneuvering around a hot glue gun or cutting cardboard with blunt child scissors in The Tech’s Hands-On Science Workshop. Many caregivers are watching over a big group of excitable kids. The parents’ primary concern is keeping track of kids and making sure they are in the right place for their scheduled activities. When asked if she could talk, one harried mom responded, eyes darting around the floor, counting heads, “I have eight boys, and we need to move!” While taking care of logistics is a critical role for parents to play, especially when shepherding large, boisterous student groups, it’s possible that this role doesn’t fully take advantage of the learning opportunities for kids and parents.  

    Hands-off & Independent Minded
    Some parents are intentionally hands-off with their kids or view a museum visit as a much needed break from active instruction. I observed many caregivers taking breaks on benches to check their phones, rest, or catch up with other parents. One mom, when asked what she liked most about coming to The Tech, told me, “I get a little rest.” Others feel they must get out of the way of their kid’s learning. Another parent said she didn’t do anything with her son during their museum visit because “I don’t want to intrude on his time.” The parents seem to step back for a few reasons:  because the museum visit offers them an opportunity to take a break, because they don’t know how else to support them, or because they feel their children will learn more through direct interactions with the museum space.  

    Cheerleader & Co-Learner
    Some parents bring their prior knowledge to the museum floor, discussing content directly with their kid while others may not have a great deal of prior knowledge about a topic, but learn to talk to their children about the exhibit content and learn with them. Both are valuable ways to co-learn with children at museums (ibid). For instance, in a group of two moms and five children, the moms egged on their children to cycle the bike exhibit to power a light. “Go faster! Make the fan work!” one mom cheered. “You have to move faster, you have to give energy to get energy. So, you’re changing your energy to get an effect,” said the second mom. Both women encouraged the kids by questioning and cheering. Research suggests this type of interaction, of parents inspiring curiosity in their children by discussing exhibits, asking questions and interacting with exhibits jointly could support museum learning (Dierking & Falk, 1994).

    Tying it all Together

    Museums are unique learning places - designed for all ages, and for people of different backgrounds to share experiences mediated by objects and activities, prompting discussion, collaboration, and inspiring excitement and interest in extending the learning experience outside of the museum in the broader community.

    While it may seem that kids are having too much fun to learn, science and technology museums are great places to ignite curiosity and provide opportunities for meaningful experiences that stick with kids to help foster a sense of identity as science and technology learners and prepare them for future learning. Parents can have an impact on how kids learn in museums, and they can help support their children’s learning by getting involved: asking questions, discussing what they see, and serving as partners and collaborators in joint learning at the museum.


    Bell, P., Lewenstein, B., Shouse, A.W.,  & Feder, M.A. (Eds). (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, National Research Council.

    Bransford, J. D. & Schwartz, D. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. In A. Iran-Nejad & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Review of research in education (Vol. 24, pp. 61-100). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

    Dierking, L. D., & Falk, J. H. (1994). Family behavior and learning in informal science settings: A review of the research. Science Education.

    Gutwill, J. P., & Allen, S. (2011). Deepening students’ scientific inquiry skills during a science museum field trip. Journal of the Learning Sciences.

    Kisiel, J., & Anderson, D., (2010). The challenges of understanding science learning in informal environments.  Curator.

    Laura Bruursema was the Learning & Exhibits Intern. She's currently a Master's student at the Stanford Graduate School of Education in the Learning, Design, & Technology program.