What is the Role of Zoos and Aquariums in Communities?

Session Overview

At the 2022 AZA Annual conference, the Social Science Research and Evaluation Scientific Advisory Group (SSRE SAG) convened a session that delved into one of the five priority research questions of the AZA’s Social Science Research Agenda (SSRA): What is the role of zoos and aquariums in communities? This session brought together professionals who develop, facilitate, evaluate, and research the development, processes, and impacts around the roles of zoos and aquariums in communities, including: community expectations, effective strategies and processes for engagement, and how Z/As (zoos and aquariums) contribute to their communities. Through brief presentations, speakers shared what is currently being done in their communities, and what SSRA sub-questions we have started to answer. Breakout sessions engaged participants in discussion about where community engagement can go, what other research questions we have, and how we can answer them in relation to 1) expectations of communities, 2) effective methods to engage with communities, and 3) contributions of Z/As towards communities. Representatives from the SSRE SAG compiled notes from these breakout sessions and have synthesized them here to make them available to the AZA and greater SSRE community.

Session speakers, facilitators, and note takers used the information provided during the session by program participants in the break out sessions to identify themes across groups.

Continue reading “What is the Role of Zoos and Aquariums in Communities?”

Outcomes from the WZAM Project

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Knology, The Center for Research and Evaluation at COSI, Oregon State University’s Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums collaborated on a research to practice project. The results from the project deepened understanding of how the public situates zoos/aquariums (Z/A) in their broader STEM learning ecosystem, how preconceptions, trust, and conferred authority influence what is learned, what visitors do, and how their experiences are integrated into their lives. Among other findings, these studies demonstrated that trust and authority is topically specific and varies by type of institution, that learning priorities vary based on life stage, and accumulate based on multiple visits over time. The funding also supported a convening of the community of researchers that resulted in the development of a social science research agenda in 2020.

Below are some of the critical deliverables that grew out of the WZAM project.

How the Public Builds Trust in Zoos & Aquariums

New research from Knology explores the ways that members of the US public develop trust in zoos and aquariums. For this study, Knology researchers analyzed data from surveys of the US general public conducted as part of two prior research studies. We hypothesized that the public could be organized into distinct clusters that have different priorities when deciding to trust zoos and aquariums. The groupings that we identified based on the survey data are nicknamed Experiencers, Conservationists, Loyalists, and Environmentalists. Our analysis showed that the groups prioritize some of the same things. For example, individuals in each cluster thought it was important for zoos and aquariums to provide animals, staff, and visitors with proper care, and to share information about their conservation efforts. But they also have unique things that matter to them. Read more about the unique characteristics of each category as well as the implications of these findings for zoo and aquarium leadership on the Knology website. Full details of the study are published in Zoo Biology.

Signs of Change

Previously we talked about the innovative way WZAM3 researchers are using GoPro cameras to learn more about what visitors do during their visits to Zoos and Aquariums (Z/As) and how they make these decisions. Well, our GoPros are back and better than ever! These versatile, portable recorders have allowed researchers to gather even more data to help us understand Z/A visitors as part of their research on the role of Z/As in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning.

In this most recent phase of their work, researchers Martin Storksdieck, Kelly Riedinger, Victoria Bonebrake, and Kimberley Preston from the STEM Research Center at Oregon State University investigated the influence of interpretive signs on visitors’ talk and behaviors at exhibits. How much do visitors engage with the signs? How much do the signs influence the way visitors think and talk about their visit and the wildlife they are seeing? Would changing the framing of the message on the sign change how visitors processed the exhibit?

A sign on a giraffe exhibit reads: What kind of things do you notice about the giraffe that would help it live in the wild? A sign on a giraffe exhibit reads: How could we make changes to limit our impact on giraffes in the wild?
Researchers are studying visitor reactions to species-focused signage (left) and conservation-focused signage (right).

To try to get some answers to these questions, the research team set up GoPros at exhibits in three different locations: the Nashville Zoo, Oregon Coast Aquarium, and the Oregon Zoo. They recorded visitors walking through the exhibits to see what kinds of conversations and behaviors people had at the exhibits. They then swapped out the original signs with boards that had a conservation focus to see if this would change people’s reactions and conversations.

This information is important because it could help researchers to elaborate on the findings from the first-phase of the GoPro study and will help Z/As in designing exhibit signs to promote conservation.

Stay tuned for more updates and results of the GoPro camera study!

Shaping the Narrative: How Does My Zoo and Aquarium Compare to Other Institutions?

We have been sharing results from studies of how Zoo and Aquarium (Z/A) personnel and visitors think and talk about these institutions. In the last post we focused on the results from survey modules that assessed personnel and visitor perceptions of Zoos and Aquariums in terms of Z/A conservation efforts and opportunities they provide for STEM learning. That post covered the perceptions that these two groups have in common and areas where they diverge.

For this post, we focus on findings from two survey modules designed to understand how visitors view their local Z/A compared to other cultural institutions, including Z/A, in general. Continue reading “Shaping the Narrative: How Does My Zoo and Aquarium Compare to Other Institutions?”

Shaping the Narrative: Do Visitors and Personnel Think About Zoos & Aquariums in the Same Way?

Our last series of posts looked at findings from Knology’s studies of the STEM Learning Ecology. Those posts covered the various places where STEM learning takes place in daily life, where zoos and aquariums (Z/As) fit in that picture, and some of the implications of that research. This next series of posts present critical findings from a yearlong survey study conducted  at 95 Z/As across the United States. 

In this post, we will look at data on the ways that visitors and Z/A personnel talk and think about these institutions. Specifically, we report on our findings about the perceptions that these two categories of individuals have about Z/As, including how they think about conservation and opportunities for STEM learning. It covers what perceptions these two groups have in common and areas where they diverge. 

The survey asked visitors and personnel about their perceptions of the concept of conservation. When asked what conservation means, most personnel and visitors understood that it involves protecting nature (73% of personnel and 63% of visitors). Not surprisingly, the link between education and conservation was clearer to personnel than it was to visitors. Of the personnel responses that we received, 13% made this connection in their explanations of conservation, but only 3% of visitors could do so. 

We also found differences in personnel and visitors’ perceptions of the subject areas people working in conservation need to know about. About 50% of personnel thought such people should know about a specific branch of science such as biology, chemistry, and environmental science. However, only 13% of visitors mentioned a specific branch of science as something that people working in conservation need to know about. Continue reading “Shaping the Narrative: Do Visitors and Personnel Think About Zoos & Aquariums in the Same Way?”

Where STEM Learning Takes Place: Implications for Zoos & Aquariums

In a previous post, we introduced the STEM Learning Ecology, which covers the various and sometimes surprising places where STEM learning takes place in daily life, and we talked about where zoos and aquariums fit in that picture. NewKnowledge’s research shows that people see Z/As as places to learn about animal-related topics and that they also see this type of learning occurring in back- and front-yards. In this final post on where STEM learning takes place, we focus on the specific topics people learn in these different spaces and the implications for how zoo and aquarium professionals do their work

As part of our study, we examined the frequency with which participants reported learning about STEM topics in science centers, natural history museums, botanical gardens, back- and front-yards, as well as at zoos and aquariums. We picked these places because our cluster analysis showed that these institutions and places are closest to zoos and aquariums in people’s minds.

We then asked participants to tell us where they encountered 14 STEM-linked concepts in the aforementioned settings. The topics included water quality, sustainability, statistics, species names, reproduction, ecosystems, and animal behavior. These topics were drawn from a separate qualitative study that asked zoo and aquarium members about places where they encountered STEM concepts outside of the Z/A environment. The heatmap below shows the relative frequencies with which our participant pool reported encountering the topics. The darker the shade of orange, the more frequently respondents reported encountering the topic in question.

The frequency with which people encounter STEM topics in different places.
The frequency with which people encounter STEM topics in different places.

For zoos, in addition to observing animal behavior, respondents reported frequent opportunities for learning about species names and reproductive behaviors. To a lesser extent, they learned about ecosystems, conservation, climate change, and sustainability. In addition to animal behavior, for aquariums, water quality, species names, and reproduction were topics that people reported encountering with the greatest frequency. To a lesser extent, respondents reported learned about sustainability, ecosystems, and conservation at aquariums.

One way to read these results is that they point to an opportunity for Z/As to refine the ways that they engage their visitors in STEM learning. Our analysis shows that there is a much broader base of topics that Z/As could potentially draw on to connect STEM concepts to applied areas such as conservation education. Because people already associate learning about animals with Z/As, we recommend professionals in these facilities explicitly connect animal behavior and the various types of STEM learning. For example, you could say something like “Here’s the math that is involved in designing this habitat.” Or, “Our keepers use statistics and animal behavior science to monitor this animal’s eating habits.” Moreover, given the variety of STEM concepts that respondents reported learning in science centers, Z/As could consider complementing their educational approaches with some of those used in such settings.

These findings are based on two studies — a workshop study and a survey study. We have a limited number of digital copies of the full article describing the workshop study available. If you would like a copy, please email katef@knology.org.

Webinar Follow-Up #2: First Findings

Continuing our webinar series on Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter, on May 2, WZAM3 researchers shared some early results from ongoing studies. This research is exploring people’s interactions with zoos and aquariums in terms of what guests bring, do, and take from their experiences as well as the ways they integrate this information in their daily lives.

There was lots to talk about! Some of the preliminary findings presented during this webinar include details about visitor demographics, supporting evidence for strong public trust in zoos and aquariums, reasons for zoo or aquarium visits and how these change over time, and shifts in visitors’ knowledge after their visit. Researchers also described new ways to think about people’s trust in zoos and aquariums and explained how these were used to group visitors based on their priorities. The team provided an update on the GoPro study which is described in a previous post.

In this post, we share some audience questions and the researchers’ responses from the second webinar. For simplicity, we broke out the questions by study, and we have edited all of the content for clarity. As a quick recap, the WZAM3 research partners are New Knowledge Organization Ltd., COSI’s Center for Research and Evaluation, and the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University. You can watch both webinars on the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education website. You’ll get far more detail on each study’s findings, as well as access the presentation slides and graphics. Also, keep checking this space because we will talk more about some of the results mentioned during the presentation in future posts. We’ve already written about the different places where informal STEM learning takes place including zoos and aquariums. Lastly, you can read our responses to questions from the first webinar here.

On to the questions! Continue reading “Webinar Follow-Up #2: First Findings”

Where STEM Takes Place: Common Threads

If we looked at a map of a city, we could circle groups of streets or entire neighborhoods that are known for specific features, characteristics, or cultural groups. For example, there may be a section of the city where all the   fashion houses and fabric shops are located. We might also see neighborhoods that have formed around a shared nationality, religious affiliation, or some kind of culture. For example, parts of this unnamed city may be enclaves for hipster culture, while other neighborhoods may be known for their large faith communities.

If you walked into one of these spaces, you would likely see some of the cues that make the common denominator in these communities obvious. For example, in the hipster community, individuals may be dressed in specific ways and espouse certain political and environmental ideologies if you spoke to them. But what if a researcher wanted to find commonalities between the hipster community and some other defined community in our hypothetical city? So for example what might this group have in common with, say, a particular religious community? Furthermore, instead of drawing circles of familiar groups on the map, let’s imagine that the researcher decides to approach the question systematically. So they collect data on all the different communities in the city  to see what new groupings bubble to the surface.

Part of our research into the informal STEM learning ecology did just that (what is STEM, you ask? We wrote about that here). In our previous post, we highlighted the various places where people encounter STEM concepts in their everyday lives. As part of the same study, we attempted to find commonalities between the different learning environments based on study participants’ responses. Intuitively, some of these elements seem like they would be connected in people’s minds based on organizations’ goals. For example, zoos and aquariums might be expected to cluster with botanical gardens and national parks given their shared focus on ecological systems. But, as you’ll see shortly, our analysis revealed groupings that in some cases were quite unexpected.

First, a word about what we did. Our survey for this study included several questions designed to capture details such as respondents’ interest in STEM, what they consider to be the social value of STEM, and how they identify with STEM. So that participants didn’t have to answer too many questions per survey, we randomly assigned each individual to answer the aforementioned questions for only one of the four STEM disciplines. We then put this information into a statistical model used to cluster or group different institutions based on respondents’ answers. In each of the clusters, shown in the graphic below, the proximity between locations shows how closely these institutions are related to each other in people’s minds as places to learn STEM content. Furthermore, since our focus is zoos and aquariums, we have highlighted their position in the diagram.

Places where people encounter STEM concepts. Proximity shows how people make connections or distinguish between different places.
Places where people encounter STEM concepts. Proximity shows how people make connections or distinguish between different places.

As the graphic shows, zoos and aquariums cluster most closely with back- and front-yards in people’s minds. The data shows that the connective tissue appears to be that people see these environments as places to both learn about animal behavior and observe these behaviors in practice. This emphasis on animal behavior might be why Z/As did not cluster with botanical gardens and national parks for example. Additional topics that respondents associated with the zoo and aquarium cluster include learning about species names, reproduction, and ecosystems. In the next post, we will look in more detail at the specific topics participants reported learning as well as the implications of our findings for STEM learning in zoos and aquariums.

These findings are based on two studies — a workshop study and a survey study. We have a limited number of digital copies of the full article describing the workshop study available. If you would like a copy, please email katef@knology.org.

Webinar Follow-Up #1: Behind the Scenes of the WZAM Initiative

On March 20, 2019, the project team from the Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter (WZAM3) initiative led a webinar hosted by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). Speaking at the webinar were John Fraser from New Knowledge Organization Ltd., Joe Heimlich from COSI’s Center for Research and Evaluation, and Martin Storksdieck from Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University.

As the first public webinar in a series organized for the WZAM3 initiative, researchers shared their vision for the project and described findings from a representative study that asked participants to talk about places where they learned STEM disciplines and topics within their communities. We’ll be exploring those findings in detail in the next few posts — or you can listen to the webinar recording for a sneak-peek! In this post, we’ll be answering the questions that webinar attendees raised. Both the questions and responses have been edited for clarity.

We are planning a second webinar for May 2, 2019 at 2:00pm ET / 11:00am PT. This time, project researchers will expand on some themes from the first webinar. Specifically, the discussion will cover some factors affecting public perceptions of and trust in zoos and aquariums. It will also include preliminary results from a survey of Z/A visits as well as an update on how GoPros are helping to clarify visitors’ interests. You can register for the second WZAM3 webinar here.

Let’s dive into Q&A from the first webinar. Continue reading “Webinar Follow-Up #1: Behind the Scenes of the WZAM Initiative”