Life Beyond Earth Summative Report

December 1st, 2013 | EVALUATION

Informal Learning Solutions and its subcontractor, Audience Viewpoints Consulting, conducted summative evaluation in 2013 of the Life Beyond Earth Exhibit. Audience Viewpoints was responsible for evaluating student response to the exhibit, with a target audience of students in 4th through 6th grades. Informal Learning Solutions conducted evaluation of weekend, primarily adult visitors response to the exhibit. The key evaluation questions were designed to find out if student visitors show gains in understanding regarding: • How extreme life on Earth is relevant for the search for life in our solar system and beyond. • What scientists know about the requirements for life on other planets and how they search life on other planets. • What scientists have discovered about exoplanets and how scientists search for them.

For the student portion of this evaluation, AVC used two primary methods: (1) Focused Observations. Based on the small size of the exhibition, the project team elected not to conduct whole-exhibit timing and tracking in lieu of focused observations on selected exhibition elements. These elements were: Home Galaxy, Solar System Orrery Model, and a multitouch table with a PlanetFinder interactive. (2) Pre-Post Visit Surveys of Students. The primary data source for the bulk of the results presented here are from pre-post surveys. Gathered from 9 schools, every attempt was made to examine change in student’s understanding of and attitudes towards Astrobiology. We contacted schools scheduled to visit the exhibition from March to June 2013 and asked them to survey their students both prior to their visit to the Maryland Science Center and afterwards. As ‘Life Beyond Earth’ might be missed within their overall visit, we asked teachers to ensure their students spent a minimum of 12 minutes within the exhibit area. A total of 556 data points were collected in the pre-post surveys, with 405 individuals from 8 schools having both pre and post-visit (matched) data. For 152 individuals there was no matched data.

The key evaluation questions were designed to find out if adult visitors show gains in understanding regarding: • How extreme life on Earth is relevant for the search for life in our solar system and beyond. • What scientists know about the requirements for life on other planets and how they search for life on other planets. • What scientists have discovered about exoplanets and how scientists search for them.

1. Observations and interviews with individual adult visitors and family groups. Adults were observed unobtrusively as they viewed and interacted with exhibits in the gallery. Twenty groups were observed. The groups numbered from 2-5 members. Twelve of the groups included children, with the ages of children in different groups ranging from about 4 years through middle school. Visitors’ path through the exhibit and their stops were recorded. Visitors who were observed received no incentive for participation. 2. Pre-Post Visit Surveys. Surveys were collected from adults (18 years and older) before and after their visit to the exhibit. The survey instruments that were used were the same as those used in the student study, with two additional two additional items: • Please list up to 3 new ideas or concepts you learned from the exhibit. • Please list up to 3 things about “life beyond earth” you would like to learn more about.

Student Findings - This exhibit very much embodies the concept of hands-on. Students touched each of the elements in the exhibit under observation. Some interactions, like at the Home Galaxy station, were fleeting. Nonetheless most students touched the tactile components, and had some understanding of what the component was representing. The tactile nature of the component supported conversation between the students. Likewise, students were fascinated with the orrery, and while direct touching was not possible, they embraced the dome and entered into conversations regarding their favorite planets and the movement of the solar system. Few students noticed the habitable zone language, and we would suggest brightened the text to more neon colors to draw attention to this element.

The multitouch table interactive on the different methods scientists use to find planets was highly successful, with students engaging in multiple methods of finding exoplanets, and accurately being able to describe both the techniques and what they were searching for. While not all students spent a significant amount of time at the table, those that did employed correct vocabulary in describing their action, suggesting that the interactive helped support the deeper exploration of content. Despite the fact that few students had interacted with a multitouch table previously, most of the conversation focused on content rather than the novelty of the technology. Overall, the evidence shows that students learned vocabulary and content knowledge within the exhibit, despite the short stay times.

Adult Findings - Observations - The observations revealed several common patterns: The most highly interactive components of the exhibit, such as the multitouch table and touchable models of extreme life, Milky Way, or planet surfaces, attract interaction, whereas many groups give images and related text less attention. Exhibit elements are effective in motivating conversations about the exhibit. Visitors “sample” exhibit elements and may seriously attend to only parts of the exhibit.

Adult Findings - Surveys Adult participants showed statistically significant gains in vocabulary when pre- and post-test results are compared. A majority of participants already knew the terms “exoplanet” and “astrobiology” in the pre-survey, but this increased to most participants in the post-visit survey. There was not a significant change in how participants rated themselves (on a 7-point scale) as an “expert” on astrobiology. They did not rate themselves highly, but perhaps it is not surprising that their rating did not change much because they spent a relatively short period in the exhibit. The proportion of participants who responded that no life had been found outside Earth showed a significant increase from a minority to over three-fifths. Most participants correctly identified relevant methods that scientists use to find exoplanets (e.g., telescopes), however, the number who identified a specific method, such as microlensing, increased from 7% to 29%. In both the pre- and post-survey, the great majority of participants identified correct reasons for the relevance of extreme life in searching for life on other planets and for why it is hard to find planets outside our solar system. Participant responses to what surprised them in the exhibit were varied, with a third of the participants citing learning about a myriad of new topics and smaller proportions indicating that they were surprised by the number of exoplanets or by learning about extremeophiles. Over 90% of participants cited at least one new idea or concept they reported they had learned from the exhibit and 73% identified three separate ideas or concepts they had learned from the exhibit. Over 90% of participants also identified at least one or more topics they would like to learn about related to astrobiology. Appendix includes instruments.



Team Members

Maryland Science Center, Contributor
Robert Russell, Evaluator, Informal Learning Solutions
Hannah Russell, Evaluator, Informal Learning Solutions
Kate Haley Goldman, Evaluator, Audience Viewpoints Consulting
Stephanie Daugherty, Evaluator, Audience Viewpoints Consulting


Funding Source: NASA
Funding Amount: 723750

Related URLs



Audience: Adults | Elementary School Children (6-10) | Middle School Children (11-13)
Discipline: Life science | Nature of science | Space science | Technology
Resource Type: Evaluation Reports | Interview Protocol | Research and Evaluation Instruments | Summative | Survey
Environment Type: Exhibitions | Museum and Science Center Exhibits