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.

We also asked visitors about STEM-related activities during their Z/A visit. Visitors indicated that they encountered science most frequently, compared to technology, engineering, and math. The most frequent activities that they mentioned were observing animals (about 94% of respondents), reading informational signs (about 85%), and conversing with a staff/volunteer (about 63%). All participants who were asked about science in particular said that they experienced science learning at Z/As. Of the people who were asked about T, E, or M experiences, in each case, 12% said that they had not encountered learning about the discipline.

We asked Z/A personnel how often they talk about STEM-related topics during their work, to contrast their perceptions with those of visitors reported above. Overall, personnel reported spending a little more than half their time talking about Science (about 54%), 16% of their time talking about Technology, 8% of their time talking about Engineering, and 8% talking about Math. These numbers suggest that Z/A personnel may be underestimating how often they talk about science in their interactions with visitors. We saw this same pattern when we looked at personnel versus visitor perceptions of the other disciplines — TEM. 

We found a few other areas where personnel and visitor perceptions of Z/As differed. For example, personnel were also more likely to mention a personal love for nature (19%) in response to a question about the personal importance of conservation, compared to 7% of visitors. On that same question, personnel were more likely to state a desire to help or protect nature (34% of respondents) as their motivation for conservation work compared to 22% of visitors. Personnel were also more likely to state a motivation to conserve nature on ethical grounds — 42% compared to 28% of visitors. 

So what are the implications of these findings? Understanding the differences between Z/A personnel’s ideas about conservation and their experiences of STEM learning points to opportunities for institutions to guide discourse around conservation efforts and ways that visitors can help advance these activities. For example, Z/As can train personnel to strategically use in-house conservation efforts as jumping-off points to talk about the conservation of particular species and habitats. In these conversations, personnel should also highlight the implications of conservation beyond the Z/A visit to help visitors connect what they are hearing to everyday life. We also suggest that personnel facilitate conversations to cover the kinds of expertise needed to address conservation matters. This includes the natural sciences but also social science, policy, and law. 

We also see opportunities for Z/As to provide training that helps personnel explicitly link STEM subjects and exhibits in their conversations. Furthermore, Z/As could encourage their personnel to discuss how programming and exhibits can help visitors engage with the different STEM disciplines.

What does this research bring to mind for you? We’d like to hear from staff, volunteers, and docents at zoos and aquariums about how you interpret these findings.

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