Gigapixel Image Environments for Science Communication & Learning: Stories in the Rock Summative Evaluation Report

February 1st, 2014 | EVALUATION

Rockman et al (REA), in partnership with Marti Louw and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE), conducted a summative evaluation in Fall 2012-Spring 2013 of a temporary museum exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in Pittsburgh, PA called, Stories in the Rock. The exhibition highlighted CMNH researchers’ documentation of ancient petroglyph sites in Saudi Arabia using GigaPan technology to capture high-resolution, zoomable images of the rock art. The exhibition centers around an activity called the Explorable Image, a touchscreen-based platform that allows visitors to freely explore an image or scene by panning and deep zoom, or select categorical themes and interest spots on the screen itself to find out annotated information about a particular topic or feature. The main purpose of the Stories in the Rock evaluation was to see to what extent the Explorable Image facilitates science communication and learning, and to demonstrate the kinds of supports that can foster a deeper public understanding of science. A secondary goal of the study was to examine how visitors used an emerging technology platform, and what visitors and museum scientists and staff thought about the Explorable Image and its ability to support disciplinary based observational practices. Questions guiding REA’s evaluation were as follows: (1) How do museum visitors use the Explorable Image? How does that differ from their use of other exhibit activities? (2) What do visitor interactions at the Explorable Image look like? Are there differences in the interactions between adult-only groups and groups with children? (3) What do visitors think about the Explorable Image content and technology? What do they think of the other activities used in the exhibition? (4) Does the Explorable Image support noticing and disciplinary observational practices? (5) What do scientists and informal science education professionals think about the use of the Explorable Image within the museum?

In order to explore these questions, REA utilized a mixed-methods approach to examine how visitors were using the exhibition and thinking about its activities and content. The evaluation team observed visitor behavior in the exhibition using a timing and tracking methodology and interviewed visitors after the experience. Additional data was collected at the Explorable Image via log files recorded by the internal computer system and video recordings of visitor interactions at the interface. Interviews were also conducted with museum leadership and the scientist whose archeological research was highlighted in the exhibition.

Key Findings: The Explorable Image helped facilitate the communication of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s scientific research to public audiences and supported visitors’ observational practices and subsequent learning. The technology has several features that support scientists’ communication of their research and visitors’ observations: (1) The technology mirrors scientists’ own observational practices by providing visitors with an opportunity to closely examine images of settings with contextual media which they would not normally have access. (2) The interface supports surface-level investigations by allowing visitors to freely explore the main image, while facilitating deeper observations through the selection of content-based themes or image-related interest spots. (3) The technology’s novelty invites visitors to engage with the interface, while its multi-layered text, audio, and video-based resources sustain visitor interactions and result in longer time spent at the activity. (4) Scientists find the technology easy to use and appreciate that they can quickly get up-to-date information on the museum floor. (5) Visitors felt that the interface was intuitive and interactive, allowing them to delve more deeply into the evidence and its interpretation.

Findings from this study demonstrate that the use of high-resolution, explorable image platforms in a museum setting can impact both museum scientists and public audiences in the following ways: Impacts on Museum Scientists: (1) Participation in this project helped museum scientists learn and incorporate new strategies for effectively communicating their research to the public. (2) The technology became a mechanism for bringing in partners from outside of the museum and having conversations about different models for engaging with public audiences that led scientists to think differently about visitor interactions. (3) Through collaboration with university learning researchers and technologists, museum scientists came to understand informal learning theories and the affordances of the Explorable Image technology and how their own research could be incorporated within the interface.
Impacts on Public Audiences: (1) The Explorable Image facilitated visitors’ use of observational practices and their exposure to exhibit content. (2) The interface yields rich, interpretive talk and reasoning around what visitors are seeing by providing visual, textual, and audio scaffolds to help them identify figures within the petroglyph site and to make meaningful connections between the image and the archeological interpretation. (3) The technology supports prolonged visitor engagement: Visitors spent a longer amount of time at the Explorable Image than has been shown in previous studies of more traditional exhibit activities (Yalowitz & Bronnenkant, 2009).

In sum, this project demonstrates that scaffolded visual representations of scientific objects and sites, like the Explorable Image, can be effective tools for sharing scientists’ research and ideas and for engaging public audiences with authentic interpretive and observational practices of science.

Appendix includes instruments.



Team Members

University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments, Contributor
Camellia Sanford-Dolly, Evaluator, Rockman et al


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: ISE/AISL

Related URLs

Gigapixel Cyberinfrastructure for Participatory Science Learning


Audience: Evaluators | General Public | Museum | ISE Professionals | Scientists
Discipline: Education and learning science | Geoscience and geography | Social science and psychology
Resource Type: Evaluation Reports | Interview Protocol | Observation Protocol | Research and Evaluation Instruments | Summative
Environment Type: Exhibitions | Games | Simulations | Interactives | Media and Technology | Museum and Science Center Exhibits