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.

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.

Where STEM Takes Place: The Learning Landscape

In this post, we examine different forms of STEM learning and the sometimes unexpected places where we encounter these concepts.

Maybe you remember planting vegetables in your backyard when you were little or looking for ladybugs or watching birds pluck seed from a feeder or watching your goldfish swim. Maybe you had questions about how roots and seeds grow into food or how to differentiate between a bee and a wasp. Maybe you tried to count the stars in the sky or wondered how those 90s computer games you loved playing so much were made. Maybe you still do some of these activities now with your own family. Each time you did, or still do, you were taking advantage of one of the many opportunities for encountering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) concepts in daily life that make up what we refer to as the STEM learning ecology. One of the aims of the WZAM initiative is to try to understand how and where people naturally engage in STEM learning, where zoos and aquariums fit in, and the implications for equipping the public with STEM information and learning experiences. Continue reading “Where STEM Takes Place: The Learning Landscape”

Why STEM? What Does It Have to Do with Zoos and Aquariums?

STEM — as an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math — has become part of common parlance. But why only these four disciplines? Why put them together? And what do they have to do with zoos and aquariums?

We launched the WZAM3 initiative to better understand how zoos and aquariums (Z/As) teach important STEM concepts with an eye towards improving existing programs. In previous posts, we have shared some of the methods that we use to collect data from our partner institutions to help us understand the ways STEM learning is currently happening in Z/As. But to really understand how they help their guests learn STEM, it is helpful first to understand how STEM is defined. Our research shows that members of the public believe that there are a number of STEM topics that Z/As could speak to based on their expertise, but they feel that these stories are seldom shared.

In this post, we’ll look at the origins of the acronym and how its four pillars fit together. Continue reading “Why STEM? What Does It Have to Do with Zoos and Aquariums?”

The History of WZAM

Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter (WZAM) is a long-term commitment (almost 20 years!) to understanding how zoos and aquariums contribute to American society. This initiative explores the relationship the public perceives between Z/As, learning, and conservation. WZAM3, the third wave of investment from the National Science Foundation, builds on the previous work of WZAM1 and WZAM2, while focusing specifically on the role that Z/As play in STEM learning.

The first wave of the project, WZAM1, began in 2001 and uncovered how Z/As encourage conservation learning with visitors. Led by the Philadelphia Zoo and the Institute for Learning Innovation, the project developed standard ways of measuring attitudes and knowledge about conservation.

WZAM1 taught us that:

  1. Most visitors arrive at Z/As with more commitment to conservation and knowledge on environmental protection than previously thought.
  2. Visits to Z/As prompt visitors to think about their role in conservation.
  3. Visitors believe Z/As play an important role in conservation and animal care.
  4. The motivation for the visit — like facilitating learning for others, finding something novel, or pursuing a personal hobby interest — will directly impact the type and quality of learning.

The second wave, WZAM2, which began in October 2005 and ended in September 2009, featured the Wildlife Conservation Society leading research on behalf of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). It investigated how visitors thought about the way the role of Z/As influences the legitimacy or set expectations for learning outcomes. The four-year research project described how different sectors of the public value Z/As in their communities and their lives. This study highlighted the public’s value of Z/As as resources for information on animal endangerment and conservation. Moreover, it showed how the public looks to these institutions to teach children about the natural world, respect for living creatures, and serve as an educational resource for children in the community.

WZAM2 also created the first series of training seminars for staff at Z/As, reflecting the learning from both waves of research. That training is now part of the core education programs offered by the AZA, and has reached professionals at more than 75% of the zoo and aquariums that are members of AZA.

In the years since the beginning of WZAM, the need for understanding the potential for Z/As to communicate conservation concerns has increased rapidly. With the two previous waves as a foundation, the third wave (WZAM3) builds off of these previous research initiatives to study how the general public perceives and trusts zoos and aquariums in the context of other informal science education institutions (like museums, parks, libraries, etc.). We hope this work will expand and strengthen how Z/As do their work.

What About Zoos & Aquariums?

In a country where some politicians and business leaders openly dispute science, the future health and wellbeing of every American relies on citizens understanding the basics of how our planet works. Here at Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter (WZAM3), we are learning how these institutions are uniquely powerful in building that understanding. Through the research of our partner scientists, we want to understand how zoos and aquariums (Z/As) can become leading institutions in teaching the public how our planet functions through STEM learning.

While the influence of Z/As might not be obvious at first glance, this study exposes how the public sees zoos and aquariums as authorities on matters of conservation, environmental protection, and broader STEM-related topics. It compares zoos and aquariums with other types of institutions such as museums, parks, and libraries — in their role as “social actors” in society.

This short video explains the WZAM3 research results as of spring 2020.

With the help of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, WZAM3 brings together social scientists from the interdisciplinary think tank Knology, the COSI’s Center for Research and Evaluation (CRE), and the Oregon State University’s Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning (OSU) to explore and enhance the role of Z/As in contemporary American life. This project aims to deepen our understanding of how visitors view Z/As in comparison to other informal science learning institutions, how a visit to a Z/A can impact visitors more deeply, and how Z/As contribute to visitors’ understanding of STEM concepts.

Knology researchers like John Fraser, Rupu Gupta, and John Voiklis — with Shuli Rank of the Wildlife Conservation Society — tackle the following research question: What are the public’s perceptions of Z/As as part of the informal STEM learning ecology? And what relative authority does the public confer on Z/As about STEM topics outside the Z/A experience?

CRE researchers like Joe E. Heimlich and Rebecca Nall aim to construct a psychometrically sound instrument for evaluating Z/A impact. In doing so, they engage with questions like: What is the individual condition of the visit? How is the visit contextualized in the life stage and learning ecology of the individual and what are common entry themes and exit outcomes tied to those themes? And How dominant is each across the visiting population?

Finally, OSU researchers like Martin Storksdieck and Kelly Riedinger investigate the entry characteristics of visitors, and examine how those characteristics play out in behaviors during a visit.

Together, the combined output of these three groups will increase the efficacy and efficiency of informal science education STEM learning outcomes for a massive nationwide audience of visitors, along with those who engage with Z/A communications in public forums like social media feeds, newspapers, and magazines. We hope this work will show how the public thinks of Z/As at different times — before the visit and thinking about what people bring with them to the Z/A, during the visit and what they do there, after the visit and what they take with them, and in between visits in their daily life when they integrate what they learned and assign value to Z/As. In short, WZAM3 will shed light on how Z/As function within a person’s lifecycle.