STEM learning from giant screen films

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January 01, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Valerie Knight-Williams and Kevin Crowley. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

More than a dozen quasi-experimental summative evaluations funded by the National Science Foundation have found statistically significant impact on viewer science learning (Flagg 1999, 2005; Johnson, 2003; Knight Williams 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008; Apley et. al, 2008;).  These summative evaluations have typically found increases in adult and student STEM interest and knowledge as well as positive impacts on audiences’ film-related actions subsequent to viewing.

None of these evaluations have, however, examined the question of how this learning, or other viewer impacts such as engagement and motivation, relate to attributes considered unique to giant screen films.  Given the substantial evidence that NSF-funded films have met their primary grant-specific goals, it is an opportune time to begin exploring these format-specific questions that have greater relevance to the field.

One challenge to establishing this area of research is the lack of consensus in the literature on what constitutes unique attributes of giant screen viewing. Qualifying that most claims are without support in empirical research, Fraser et al.’s (2012) review of science-related learning from giant screen films found that:  “Four attributes are claimed to contribute to higher learning outcomes: the sense of immersion by reducing peripheral views to a minimum; first person perspective contributing to the sense of presence in the film; narrative structure; and sensory stimulation of mirror neurons that promote kinesthetic learning.”

Presence: one area of current research interest

At the time Fraser’s 2012 paper was submitted for publishing, some of the authors were completing an NSF-funded study of the full dome planetarium presentation The Tales of Maya Skies (Heimlich et al., 2010).  Their report made significant reference to presence as a “factor identified in the literature as contributing to the potential for enhanced learning from dome and giant screen films.”  Their review concluded there was a lack of research on learning differences due to presence and a need for further study.

In his 2008 Giant Screen Cinema Symposium talk, Matthew Lombard formally presented the concept of presence (as telepresence) to the GS community (Lombard, 2008).  Nearly a decade before the symposium, Flagg (1999) had already honed in on this idea of presence as a unique attribute, without formally labelling the concept as such.  Based on her review of summative evaluations of NSF-funded GS films, she observed that a critical feature of a giant screen film for adult viewers was a “you are there” feeling. Similarly, the article Presence: Concept, determinants and measurement authored by IJsselsteijn et al. in 2000 explored the dimensions and measurement of the concept of presence, summed up as the experience of `being there’ in the context of a mediated environment, such as video games, film or television.  Wijnand’s article came at a time when the concept was being actively discussed and studied in the traditional media and virtual reality fields. Discussions led to a desire for meaningful and systematic research on presence, which led to calls for standardized measures (Prothero et al 1995, Sheridan, 1992).

As measures emerged over the next decade, so too did debate over what constituted valid and reliable methods of measuring presence. Proponents noted the advantage of subjective post-questionnaires and rating scales that do not disrupt the media experience and are easy to administer. Critics pointed to the measures requiring users to understand what is meant by the term ‘presence’ as early measures relied on asking users about presence explicitly and were not based on underlying dimensions. Significant developments in measuring presence followed, resulting in at least five different instruments. According to Lombard, each scale had strengths, but no one measure met the criteria of being valid, reliable, sensitive, applicable in different conditions and environments, as well as comprehensive and inclusive of the main dimensions of presence identified in the literature (Lombard et al., 2011).

In response to these shortcomings, Lombard’s Temple University research group took this work to the next level. The team developed The Temple Presence Inventory (TPI), drawing on 114 measures that the group collected from studies on presence.  The TPI was designed to permit comparisons across media systems, formats, and contents.  Over the past several years, researchers have begun to use or adapt the TPI for use in studies of diverse media types, including video games; serious games, mobile social robotics and video.  Most of these studies have investigated the effects of presence, or how to heighten presence, by manipulating features of the particular format studied, typically screen size, resolution, or depth dimension. Only one study uncovered for this wiki stub (Lane et al., 2013) specifically explored the role of presence in learning outcomes, although the media format involved a serious game, so its applicability to GS films is uncertain.

In sum, the field of presence research related to giant screen films is still in a stage of exploration driven by a knowledge-building effort rather than an overarching theory.  Currently, there is at least one NSF funded giant screen film project, Amazon Adventures, that will explore the role of presence in viewer learning from the film. Amazon Adventures follows the story of the discovery of biological mimicry (the critical proof for natural selection and in turn, evolution) through the life story of Henry Bates and his travels through the Amazon rainforest .

Directions for Future Research 

In addition to research on presence, researchers, evaluators and practitioners within the giant screen field recently identified a number of other areas for potential research.  A one day workshop on October 18, 2013 entitled Setting the Agenda for Giant Screen Research Workshop convened more than 30 giant screen stakeholders, immersive practitioners, academic researchers and giant screen industry affiliated experts to consider the key issues for a giant screen research agenda.  Through a series of three breakout discussions, participants were asked to generate key research issues, define potential research questions and develop a list of constraints and barriers in promoting a research agenda.

A report on the workshop outcomes entitled Setting the Agenda for Giant Screen Research Workshop identified five main categories of interest for a research agenda: Audiences, impact (measures and outcomes), learning, technology (giant screen attributes and characteristics) and, industry. Each category in turns details a list of questions that the participants deemed important for inclusion in the research agenda.

Resources/Communities of Practice

Giant Screen Cinema Association -


Museum Screens Community of Practice -


Apley, A., Streitburger, K. & Scala, J. (2008). Dinosaurs Alive Film Summative Report. Retrieved from

Flagg, B. (2005). Beyond Entertainment: Educational Impact of Films and Companion Materials. Big Frame , 22 (2), pp. 50-56. Retrieved from

Flagg, B. N. (1999, Sept./Oct.). Lessons Learned from Viewers of Giant Screen Films. The Informal Learning Review

Fraser, J., Heimlich, J. E., Jacobsen, J., Yocco, V., Sickler, J., Kisiel, J., et al. (2012, May 11). Giant Screen Film and Science Learning in Museums. Museum Management and Curatorship, pp. 179-195. Retrieved from

Heimlich, J. E., Sickler, J., Yocco, V., & Storksdieck, M. (2010). Influence of Immersion on Visitor Learning: Maya Skies Research Report. Edgewater, MD.

Johnson, A. (2003). Summative Evaluation of Coral Reef Adventure—An IMAX® Dome Film: Post-Viewing Telephone Interviews. Unpublished report.

IJsselsteijn, W. A., de Ridder, H., Freeman, J., & Avons, S.E. (2000). Presence: Concept, determinants and measurement. Proceedings of the SPIE, 3959, pp. 520-529.

Knight Williams Inc. (2004). Summative Evaluation of Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees with a Student Audience; Summative Evaluation of Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees with an Adult Audience.

Knight Williams, Inc. (2005). Volcanoes of the Deep Sea: Summative Evaluation with an Adult Audience; Volcanoes of the Deep Sea: Summative Evaluation with a Student Audience.

Knight Williams, Inc. (2006). Three Summative Evaluations Conducted for National Geographic’s Forces of Nature with Adult, Student, and Educator Audiences.

Knight Williams, Inc. (2008). Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure: Summative Evaluation Report. Retrieved from

Lane, C., Hays, M. J., Aeurbach, D., & Core, M. G. (2010). Investigating the Relationship between Presence and Learning in a Serious Game. Intelligent Tutoring Systems, (1), pp. 274-284.

Lombard, M. (2008). Using Telepresence to Communicate Science in Giant Screen Cinema. The Greater Potential of Giant Screen Experiences: Connecting Society with Science (Preparatory Material) (pp. 75-81). St. Charles, MO: GSCA.

Lombard, M., Weinstein, L., & Ditton, T. B. (2011). Measuring telepresence: The validity of the Temple Presence Inventory (TPI) in a gaming context. Edinburgh, Scotland: Presented at the 2011 annual conference of the International Society for Presence Research (ISPR).

Nucci, M. (2015). Setting the Agenda for Giant Screen Research: A Roadmap for Research.  Retrieved from

Prothero, J. D., Hoffman, H. G., Parker, D. E., Furness III, T. A., & Wells, M. J. (1995). Foreground/background manipulations affect presence. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 39th Annual Meeting. Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors Society.

Seldon, T, and Nucci, M (2014). Setting the Agenda for Giant Screen Research Workshop. Retrieved from

Sheridan, T. B. (1992). Musing on telepresence and virtual presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 1 (1), pp. 120-125.