Volume 15 (1) 

Reflections on Using Technology to Educate Zoo Visitors About Conservation
Marley Steele-Inama and Erica Kelly

In this installment of the VSA Reflection on Evaluation and Research feature, we dig into the ongoing challenge of developing effective interpretation and the related issue of what impacts are important.  These reflections emerge from the April 2012 Visitor Studies article (vol 15:1) by Perdue, Stoinski and Maple, Using Technology to Educate Zoo Visitors About Conservation, where researchers examined the relative effectiveness of live and video-based presentations conducted at a live animal exhibit (orangutans) at Zoo Atlanta.

For this reflection, Marley Steele-Inama, Education Research and Evaluation Manager at Denver Zoo, and Erica Kelly, Exhibit Developer at the San Diego Natural History Museum provide their perspectives on interpretation, technology, and the complexities of learning.

Jim: So this article tackles a straightforward question—is one mode of interpretation (video) as effective as another (live presenter)?  In this case, ‘effective’ is measured in terms of visitors’ recall of knowledge. It’s a clean, simply designed study that provides some fairly convincing evidence. What are your initial thoughts on this approach?

Marley: I appreciated reading a piece that looked at three methods of delivering content knowledge, as we at Denver Zoo want to begin to explore this very research once we open our new elephant exhibit in June of this year.  We have multiple methods to deliver content in this 10-acre exhibit, just as [in] the Zoo Atlanta’s orangutan exhibit, including traditional graphics, cultural/religious interpretive elements, videos, sound bytes – through low tech devices that require a visitor to manually crank a wheel to listen to stories in the first person narrative – volunteer stations, and staff talks/demos with and without animals.

The research to date indicates that traditional graphics do not have the impact we, as zoo and museum staff, want them to have. If there are studies out that report that zoo visitors spend more time at high technology versus low technology (e.g., graphics, cranking a wheel to listen to a sound byte), I feel additional research on the use of technology as a mode of delivering knowledge can only increase our exhibit and master planning processes.  We (Denver Zoo and other zoos) continue to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in these methods; however, are these traditional graphics a dying breed?

Erica: The ability to declare factual information a short time after it's encountered is certainly one measure of one type of learning, as is stay time, for sure. So I think this is a worthy thing to investigate, and the results—that a video or interpreter can impact those measures—are useful. I do find myself reflecting, though, how much more complex learning is, and I would love to see a deeper understanding of this reflected in the piece. The National Research Council's Six Strands of Informal Science Learning is one way to think about the complexity of the nature of learning in these types of environments.

Jim: Certainly one of the challenges in looking at learning is defining just what that means, or what aspects of learning might be more important.  The NRC report (Learning Science in Informal Environments, 2009) speaks of six strands of science learning, all intertwined, suggesting that we need to consider all aspects to get a fair picture of science learning.  Understanding science knowledge is definitely part of that, but as you suggest Erica, there is more.  I’m wondering what other outcomes you or your colleagues at your respective institutions might want to know more about.

Marley: Our mission statement at Denver Zoo is: Secure a better world for animals through human understanding.  So, in essence, a top priority for our visitor audience should be to measure understanding.  That is no small feat!  We have been training our educators to shift toward thinking about “understanding” the way Wiggins and McTighe (2005) do in their Understanding by Design method for curriculum development.  They suggest six facets of understanding, which, ultimately, can serve to influence the outcomes we measure.  These include:

  1. 1.Can they explain the content? Can they explain how things work, why things happen the way they do?  For this, knowledge gain would be an essential outcome.
  2. 2.Can they interpret the content? Can they tell a story that helps us make sense of the content?  Again, knowledge is needed support this outcome.
  3. 3.Can they apply what they have learned? Can our audiences use their knowledge in new ways or new contexts?  For example, how does what they learn in one exhibit relate to what they learn or experience in another exhibit in our zoo?  For this, knowledge and skills are needed, as well as intentions to apply.
  4. 4.Does the visitor have perspective about the content? Are they able to look at things from a different point of view?  Perspective now starts to get our audiences toward affective outcomes, not just knowledge, and yes, those are critically important for us to measure as a conservation education organization.
  5. 5.Do our visitors have empathy from what they have experienced?  Similar to perspective, we now must now put visitors in another person’s or being’s shoes.  Again, we are considering more affective outcomes.
  6. 6.Do visitors have self-knowledge related to the concepts introduced at our zoo?  Do they know what they know and what they don’t know about the concept, and do they recognize it?

Erica: "Understanding" is a useful word. Knowledge is one aspect of it but, as the framework above demonstrates, there are other aspects of understanding as well. It suggests something a bit more holistic. I was in a conversation recently at my institution where someone said, "Knowledge is not the same thing as awareness."  I've been thinking about that a lot since, and wondering what our institutions might look like if we recognized the distinction and let ourselves accept awareness as an outcome equally valid as knowledge—if we in fact accepted that "awareness" might be a much more appropriate domain for museums to own. I think the research at large demonstrates that coming away from a museum visit with increased declarative knowledge is actually relatively rare—but that people come away from a visit with deepened awareness all the time. You can have a deepened awareness about climate change without being able to quote statistics on climate change data. This is the advantage of a framework like the one Marley cites above, or like the NRC’s Six Strands. They acknowledge the complexity of learning in these environments.

Jim: In the Perdue study, they chose to look at one aspect of understanding (scientific knowledge)—they could have looked at changes in awareness, interest, etc.  One of the challenges of research is that you can’t look at everything all the time.  Another is that some things are ‘easier’ to get at than others—changes in interest or empathy or behavior are difficult (but not impossible) to document.  In addition, if stakeholders are more interested in knowing about changes in visitors’ science knowledge, then that is likely the outcome that will be used for comparison, given likely constraints of time and funding.

Erica: I also think that there seems to be a presumption that visitors come to zoos to absorb new factual information—which I suspect, based on so much other existing research into visitor motivations for visiting zoos and museums, is more reflective of the institutions’ goals than the goals of the visitors.

Jim: This brings up another set of questions, right? To what extent is there a disconnect between institutional goals for an exhibit component (e.g., visitors will learn about the declining habitat of this species) and audience goals for the visit (e.g., experience these fascinating creatures close up)?  If we acknowledge this potential disconnect, then can we honestly assess the success of an exhibit?

Erica: I think the field has a ways to go in terms of appreciating visitors' own motivations and goals for their visits.  What I think I am seeing in the field in general is that while many learning researchers are indeed very aware of a conflict between institutional goals and visitors' goals, the institutions themselves are less quick to see it.  John Falk calls for the necessity "that we come to accept that the long-term meanings created by visitors from their time in the museum are largely shaped by short-term personal, identity-related needs and interests rather than by the goals and intentions of the museum's staff" (2009, p35.)  But this continues to be a hard sell for institutions that really, really want people to come away knowing the difference between placental mammals and marsupial mammals or how the rock cycle works, as if those topics might all appear on some pending test.

To the rest of your question—I think that there are other measures of success. Are most people breezing through or are they spending time? Are they having conversations with one another around exhibit elements—calling each other over, pointing things out, using objects to anchor personal reflections?  Broader acceptance of these other measures will require a larger paradigm shift in the field, I think.

Marley: Yes, the paradigm shift comes down to ‘How do we make congruent what we want and what they (audiences) want and get?’ As museums, we have to start to reshape our thinking of the “success of exhibit”; meaning, we invest so much into the conceptualization, design and fabrication of exhibits; however, are they successful if the goals of the exhibit are not met, YET the audiences gain in other ways?  So, I am in total agreement with Erica.

There is the argument that visitors may not always know what they want until they actually are engaged in it, which I agree with as well, but this does not mean we cannot and should not include the visitor voice in our exhibit and programming goals.  Meaning, we have our own institutional missions that we are trying to achieve, as well as strategic and exhibit master plans that guide us, but visitors must have a say in how those goals are manifested through visitor experiences.

I do see this conflict between institutional and audience goals at our zoo, however, I feel that the paradigm shift is beginning.  For example, I am responsible for a new strategic initiative that is looking at understanding best methods for achieving our audience-based outcomes through research and evaluation.  This is HUGE for us to have as a strategic initiative– it is moving us away from a small group of staff developing exhibits based on our internal interests, or gut instinct, but on data.  Perhaps OUR message [for a particular exhibit piece] won’t get across, but something else will, and how cool would that be to know?  Of course, having more of an understanding of what people get out of certain exhibit elements can influence our future designs, being that much more congruent between what we want and what visitors want.

Related references:

Falk, J.H. (2009). Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Left Coast Press: Walnut Creek, CA.

National Research Council. (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments. Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005).  Understanding by Design (2nd Ed). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.


Erica Kelly is Exhibit Developer at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Marley Steele-Inama is Education Research and Evaluation Manager at Denver Zoo

Jim Kisiel is Associate Professor of Science Education at California State University, Long Beach