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?”

What’s in a Word?

Are zoo animals looked after by “keepers” or “caregivers”? Do aquarium animals live in “exhibits” or in “enclosures”? Should these institutions  focus on “maximizing safety” or “minimizing risk”? Do these words feel interchangeable? Or do they make you think differently about zoos and aquariums (Z/As)?

The way we talk about Z/As shapes how people view these institutions. It seems obvious that the language Z/As use to describe their work in exhibitions, marketing, and the media influences the public’s perception. Continue reading “What’s in a Word?”

Getting Inside Of (Or On Top Of) Your Head

When you think of GoPro cameras, you might think of backcountry snowboarding expeditions, or underwater cave diving. But GoPro cameras have also become a tool for researchers to learn about how people make their decisions when they visit zoos and aquariums (Z/As). Thanks to these small recorders, researchers can get more details, more perspective, and just plain more data to help them understand visitors.

WZAM3 researchers are studying the role of Z/As in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning in the US. But before we can determine the role of Z/As in STEM learning, we need to figure out what visitors even do at Z/As. And more importantly, what makes them do it? Usually, researchers collect this kind of data by tracking individuals and groups during their visits. Martin Storksdieck, Kelly Riedinger, and their team from the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University have updated and enhanced this methodology by equipping visitors at six Z/As across the US with GoPro cameras that record every aspect of their visit.

The OSU team asked visitors to wear a camera mounted on a hat during their visit, which would record everything they did, including their conversations. Researchers also interviewed visitors before and after their visit. The videos helped the researchers understand visitors’ behaviors: how groups made decisions about where to go and what to do during their visit, and how they made meaning of the experience. For instance, in groups with young children, do parents primarily make the decisions or children? If there are multiple children in the group, is it primarily the younger child or the older child driving decision-making in the group? The OSU team is also asking questions about where learning and meaning-making happen during the visit. For example, do visitors talk about what they learned only at exhibits or do they engage in conversations even as they are walking throughout the Z/A or when they stop to eat lunch? Or in another way?

The information helps determine how entry characteristics influence behaviors and the extent to which visitors’ agendas align with those of the Z/As they’re visiting. Plus, who doesn’t love an excuse to strap a GoPro to their noggin?

Stay tuned for the results of the GoPro camera study — we’ll talk about the highlights here on the blog soon.

The WZAM Team Comes to NAAEE in Spokane!

Once we start talking about STEM learning at informal learning centers, we just can’t stop!

Join WZAM researchers Rupu Gupta (NewKnowledge), Kelly Riedinger (Oregon State University) Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning) and Mary Ann Wojton (Lifelong Learning Group/COSI) in Spokane, WA this week at the North American Association of Environmental Education Research Symposium as they continue the discussion about public perceptions of the STEM Learning Ecology and where zoos and aquariums are situated within that landscape.

They will offer insight to some surprising survey results from visitors at zoos and aquariums around the country that expose the public’s views on where and when they encounter STEM topics. In particular, they’ll discuss how environmental educators and their institutions can promote both STEM and environmental learning for their audiences. This research provokes new thinking on E-STEM, or using the environment as a pathway to STEM learning.

To learn more about how the public’s expectations about STEM learning at informal science learning centers match the educational mission of these institutions, join our researchers for a facilitated discussion, Investigating The Confluence Of Visitor And Institutional Conservation Learning Agendas, on Tuesday, October 9 from 10:45am to 11:15am in 201A at the Spokane Convention Center.

To learn more specifically about how environmental educators can best equip themselves for STEM learning, join Rupu in her presentation, Bring, Do, Take: Useful Tools for Practitioners, on Thursday October 11 from 2:30 PM to 4 PM at the Spokane Convention Center in meeting room 206A.

We’re Coming to ASTC in Hartford

From backyards, to restaurants, to science centers, to public schools, there is a wide range of places STEM learning can occur. Join NewKnowledge researcher John Voiklis and Oregon State University’s Martin Storksdieck this October at the Association of Science-Technology Centers annual conference to learn what 1,462 survey takers from across the United States told us about the STEM Learning Ecology. John and Martin will explore public perceptions of the STEM Learning Ecology, and where zoos and aquariums are situated within that landscape.

They’ll give attendees a sneak peak into survey results showing the public’s view on where and when they encounter STEM topics (hint: the answer may surprise professionals in the informal STEM learning field). Moreover, they’ll show how zoos and aquariums are THE place for certain types of learning, and how the informal science learning centers can use the results of this study to increase STEM learning among the public.

To find out more, join John Voiklis and Martin Storksdieck in their discussion on Aligning Your Agendas with Those of Your Visitors: Lessons Learned from Zoos and Aquariums, on October 1 from 2:30 PM to 3:45 PM at the Connecticut Convention Center in meeting room 13.

Here We Come! 2018 AZA Annual Meeting

Fall is approaching. Visits to Z/As are getting replaced with Saturday morning soccer games and afterschool clubs. As this seasonal shift happens, how do visitors’ perceptions of zoos and aquariums change when they aren’t visiting as frequently? NewKnowledge researchers Shuli Rank and Dr. John Fraser will tackle this question on a panel at the Association of Zoos and Aquarium Annual Conference in Seattle, WA this September. This discussion on Evolving Perceptions of Zoos and Aquariums and What to Do about Them will address where perceptions of zoos and aquariums exceed, meet, or fall below what the public expects of these institutions.

With members of the panel, WZAM3 researchers will talk about how information collected from previous visitor surveys can help Z/As better address questions asked by the general public and visitors. Transparency about these questions can improve understanding, dispel misconceptions, and assure the public and visitors that AZA accredited facilities work hard to ensure the best care for their animals.

Join us in Room 608 on September 26 from 4:00 – 5:30 PM to learn why researchers need to interrogate the public’s perception and expectations of Z/As in general when they aren’t currently attending one to determine the role that Z/As have in the ecology of STEM learning.

Measuring Favorability of Zoos & Aquariums: Getting It Right

At the outset of the WZAM3 initiative, the research team wanted to find out how favorably the public views zoos and aquariums. We anticipated that this study would help us understand how much the public trusts Z/As as authorities on STEM topics. Favorability research has been done before, and we hoped to update it. Sounds simple, right?

But how does one accurately measure how much a visitor likes an aquarium? Or how much they trust a zoo? Or how they feel about the different reasons animals may live in these institutions? Part of understanding how visitors place Z/As in society — and particularly as places where STEM learning occurs — is about uncovering the most successful (and least successful) ways to ask people questions about their perceptions of these places.

Previously collected data suggests that the public’s opinion of Z/As is decreasing. But after a close look at previous approaches to favorability research, there are aspects of the surveys that need to be reconsidered before accepting this conclusion. Continue reading “Measuring Favorability of Zoos & Aquariums: Getting It Right”

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.