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.

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