Informal Education

Informal Education

A visual analysis of informal education and user experience in exhibition design.

What are the specific challenges in creating appealing and engaging visualizations in self-motivated learning environments?


Designing visualizations for science museums presents several specific challenges due to the individualized nature of informal education. Appealing and engaging visualizations are critical for how exhibits are used in self-motivated learning environments. This study begins to explore the pros and cons of digital and traditional, static exhibits.

Learning that occurs outside of the classroom is often referred to as informal education. This type of experiential learning is recorded in environments such as museums, zoos, and aquariums, but also occurs ubiquitously. In informal educational settings learners demonstrate free-choice and control over their own experiences. For example, learning that occurs in museums is often self-motivated, nonlinear, has no measure of performance, is mediated within a social context, and occurs in a variety of settings. It is therefore important to understand how and why a museum patron chooses to engage with different exhibits.


A Visitor’s Experience at the NC Museum of Life & Science

Date: Saturday, February 2017.
The recorded study was of a first-time visit of an adult male accompanied by his wife at the NC Museum of Life and Science in Durham. Observations and anecdotal evidence were periodically recorded by the visitor’s wife alongside photographic evidence. The order was directed entirely by the visitor with exception to the initiation to explore the outdoor area, of which he was originally unaware of. Regardless, the visitor chose the exhibits, how to interact with them, as well as the duration of interaction.

The documented experience is of a 29 year-old male who is interested in math, science, and engineering. He is well-educated and currently an Industrial Engineering Ph.D. candidate at NC State University. 


Visitor Profile



Time allocated by exhibit

The visitor spent the first half of a 3 hour trip inside the main building. He chose to interact primarily with complex (reliant upon additional instruction to facilitate) exhibits such as balance in the Math Moves! gallery. The latter half of the excursion, the visitor, with increasing positive feelings towards the institution, chose simple (intuitively-used or zero to minimal additional information required) exhibits such as the blocks in the South Gallery despite having chosen to initially bypass the exhibit.

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Two main types of exhibit types were identified. simple — no additional or minimal signage required for interaction; complex — additional instruction required for knowledgeable interactions.

The visitor spent proportionally more time interacting with simple exhibits that were intuitively-used rather than those that required additional instruction. 


Cognitive Emotional Response Map

The map (below) graphically illustrates the sequence of exhibits and the corresponding thoughts, verbal dialog and emotional response the visitor experienced during his 3 hour visit to the NCMLS.

There was an overall general feeling of positivity towards the excursion. However, the visitor’s initial reaction seemed apathetic bordering on unfavorable. As the visitor moved throughout the exhibits, positive feelings towards the institution accrued. This influenced his overall perception of the exhibits making him more amenable to the museum’s offerings. It was observed that the visitor’s mood became increasingly more playful and energetic. Initially, he was more pensive and reactive to exhibits. As he became more comfortable with the institution, the visitor began to initiate his own learning prerogatives by interacting with more open-ended exhibits such as the blocks in the South Gallery as opposed to the more purposeful exhibits that depict specific principles such as Balance in the Math Moves! area.

There was an overall general feeling of positivity towards the excursion. However, the visitor’s initial reaction seemed apathetic bordering on unfavorable. As the visitor moved throughout the exhibits, positive feelings towards the institution accrued. This influenced his overall perception of the exhibits making him more amenable to the museum’s offerings. It was observed that the visitor’s mood became increasingly more playful and energetic. Initially, he was more pensive and reactive to exhibits. As he became more comfortable with the institution, the visitor began to initiate his own learning prerogatives by interacting with more open-ended exhibits such as the blocks in the South Gallery as opposed to the more purposeful exhibits that depict specific principles such as Balance in the Math Moves! area.

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Emotional Response to Exhibits

Having had no prior experience with the museum he was initially apathetic. However, the visitor had an increasingly favorable perception of the institution as he engaged with and discovered new exhibits. Initially, exhibits high in complexity, had the highest attracting power, however, as he developed an increasingly favorable view of the institution, the visitor chose simpler, intuitively-used exhibits that require little to no additional information for meaningful interaction. Ultimately, he spent the most time engaged with the latter and had the strongest most favorable emotional responses to the simple exhibits over the complex. 


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Perceptions: Who are museums for?

Respondents overwhelmingly believe their local science museum is designed primarily for children and families, according to surveys conducted by the Association of Science-Technology Centers and the Exploratorium.

“The museum . . . has always been a place
where curiosity is valued and cultivated. It
was that sense of let’s get out and explore
. . .”
— Michelle Kloda, exhibit designer

Science museums provide an opportunity to engage with exhibits in a mutually beneficial educational experience for adults and children. A discrepancy has been observed, however, in the level of adult engagement at many local science museums despite the high proportion of adult attendees (with or without children). 

Research findings published by the Association of Science-Technology Centers and the Visitor Research and Evaluation Department at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California indicate that 80% of visitors go to their local science museum because either their children like to visit, family-time or for learning opportunities for the children. Forty-four percent of respondents were relatively affluent, well-educated mothers in their 30s and 40s with children in elementary and/or middle school. This demographic visits 4 or more times a year on average and comprises the highest percentage of museum patrons. Although the largest demographic, the degree of engagement, as assessed by the attracting power and holding power of exhibits on individuals in the group, is significantly less than that of others, particularly children. For science museums that attempt to do more than entertain, this is a loss of opportunity to engage adults meaningfully.


Informal Education and User Experiences in Museums: Using Digital and Non-Digital Solutions to Create Tangible Experiences

The rise of digital technology raises questions about the role traditional, static exhibits play. However, both have their strengths and weaknesses based on the type of experience a museum wants to facilitate. Digital experiences, such as the Living Liquid exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, allow users to interact with large amounts of complex data that is not typically accessible except to experts in the field.

The Living Liquid Exhibit, interactive digital media, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. Photograph by Ariel Schwartz 2013.

The Living Liquid Exhibit, interactive digital media, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. Photograph by Ariel Schwartz 2013.

Living Liquid is an interactive, visual tool that can be used to answer fundamental questions in new ways. Yet it is also limited. Although the exhibit creates a personalized experience by allowing users to learn more about specific localizations around the world, it has a narrower, more focused learning objective. It seeks to inform visitors about the specific phenomenon of phytoplankton at both a microscopic and global scale. It is also an exhibit that could potentially be reformatted for home use on an iPad. 

Conversely, physical manifestations of phenomenon in exhibits such as Tornado, by Ned Kahn, at the Exploratorium allow a wider audience to experience a phenomenon in real time, involving more of the senses to create a greater universal appeal and an open-ended learning outcome. It offers visitors a novelty experience that can only be had through physical interaction within the museum.

Experiencing the Tornado exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. Photograph by Laura Lucanidae 2015

Experiencing the Tornado exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. Photograph by Laura Lucanidae 2015

Tornado is an 8-foot column of swirling mist, representing a miniature twister. Visitors can touch, smell and interact with it directly. They can reach into the mist to disrupt the flow, or even turn off the overhead fans and watch the mist dissipate8. It is a powerful, visceral experience because the phenomenon inhabits the same space as the viewer.  

Nondigital exhibits are universally more accessible as they are less reliant upon cognitive processing but rather intuitive responses. Although well-designed digital media such as the Living Liquid exhibit at San Francisco’s Exploratorium address some of these issues, much of the learning process occurs cognitively and is dependent upon the ability to see. For example, many digitally-based exhibits are contingent on translating symbols such as color, as representations for concentration and/or species of phytoplankton. In contrast, tornado was constructed for visitors to draw their own inferences. Learning experiences are unrestricted and allow visitors to experiment and come to their own conclusions. Developers intentionally provide minimal background information to promote an informal learning process in which visitors explore in a less directed manner that prompts further investigation outside of the museum, however, does not provide a method of doing so. This touchpoint in the user journey experience would be interesting to explore further. How can a exhibit designer provide an outlet that allows for the depth of information made accessible by digital media with the breadth of a traditional, static exhibit?


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Resources

Diamond, Judy, et al. Practical Evaluation Guide: Tools for Museums and Other Informal Educational Settings. 3rd ed., Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. EBSCOhost. 

“Living Liquid Exhibit at Exploratorium.” Center for Visualization, UC Davis, 2012, vis.ucdavis. edu/?p=430. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017. 

Lucanidae, Laura. Experiencing the Tornado exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. Sept. 2015. Stag Beetle Power, stagbeetlepower. blogspot.com/2015/09/exploratorium.html. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017. 

Ma, Joyce, et al. “Living Liquid: Design and Evaluation of an Exploratory Visualization Tool for Museum Visitors.” Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, vol. 18, no. 12, Dec. 2012, pp. 2799-808. 

Oppenheimer, Frank, et al. Working Prototypes: Exhibit Design at the Exploratorium. Exploratorium, 1986. 

Schwartz, Ariel. The $300 Million Science Museum of the Future: Living Liquid. 17 Apr. 2013. Fastco Exist, FastCo Company, www.fastcoexist.com/1681813/the- 300-million-science-museum-of-the-future. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017.


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