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.

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.

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