History and STEM learning

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Allison Cosbey and Alice Anderson. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


In 2012, the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park began work on the National Science Foundation-funded Prairie Science project [createconnect.org]. Its goal: to produce a framework for integrating informal science experiences into exhibitions, interpretation, and programs at historic sites and museums. The resulting exhibition, Create.Connect, was developed collaboratively by Conner Prairie and the exhibition and research/evaluation departments at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Evaluation of the exhibition was multi-layered, including surveys, interviews, timing and tracking and recorded family conversations. An additional piece to the project was working with four history institutions that developed their own exhibition based on the model developed in Create.Connect.

Other history museums interpret science or STEM in some way, but the goal of Create.Connect was to truly integrate the two disciplines, so visitors are not exploring the history of science, or STEM in the service of history. Instead, Create.Connect was intended to offer visitors the opportunity to engage in STEM activities that prompt behaviors like building, testing and experimenting that also relate closely to narratives from the past. Conner Prairie attracts many family groups, and the Create.Connect exhibition was intentionally designed to prompt inter-generational conversation through objects, narratives and activities.

The exhibition was designed to be experienced with or without facilitation, but Conner Prairie’s visitor-centered interpretation model (Opening Doors), was a part of both elevating history and STEM activity. Other institutions are engaging with similar interdisciplinary work, including the four partners on this project. Several resources are available that discuss the exhibition design, interpretation model and evaluative frameworks for other institutions to draw from. See http://www.createconnect.org/try/

Mystic Seaport. Force and Motion at Sea exhibition: http://www.mysticseaport.org/locations/discovery-barn/

Wabash County Historical Society, The Dr. Charles Bush Science exhibition: http://www.wabashmuseum.org/exhibits.html

California State Railroad Museum, A Shift in Power: https://www.californiarailroad.museum/visit/exhibits

Oliver Kelly Farm: http://sites.mnhs.org/historic-sites/oliver-h-kelley-farm

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

  • Visitors to history institutions are open to exploring STEM and interacting with hands-on STEM activities.
  • About half of visitor groups (17 of 35) had moments in their conversation that integrated STEM and History ideas.
  • Making history hands-on helped balance visitor’s attention between the two disciplines but visitors spent more time with STEM activities in their visit. The addition of more immersive historical settings in the exhibition prompted visitors to stay longer, thus increasing the time visitors spent at the hands-on STEM activities.
  • Exhibition design was intentional in prompting visitors to make connections between STEM activities and historical narratives (e.g. a windmill activity that was related to a story about historical windmills was changed to align more closely with the historical windmill.)
  • Historical narratives were a compelling/attractive/inviting way for visitors, especially adults, to have conversations with younger visitors.
  • Boys and girls explored the exhibit in similar ways, for similar lengths of time and received similar types of conversation. Girls received a bit more emotional support and connection-making conversation.

Directions for Future Research 

Out of this project we developed a framework for coding conversations that integrated STEM and History thinking skills and identified two patterns for how they were integrated. However, these models have only been tested in one exhibition. Future projects will help to further refine these coding frameworks and models.

  • How can exhibitions be designed to intentionally prompt visitors to make connections between history and STEM (or between other topics that are not typically connected)?
  • What strategies can facilitators use to prompt visitors to make connections?
  • How do shared personal stories – prompted by objects, narratives or activities – influence the emotional connections among family members?
  • Does situating STEM in context create more gender equity in informal STEM exhibits or experiences?
  • In what ways does historical learning map onto STEM learning in informal experiences and when do the disciplines diverge? What are the cross-cutting thinking and communicating skills essential to both disciplines?
  • Further refinement and development of the coding frameworks for interdisciplinary STEM & History conversation and testing of this framework in different settings.


Anderson, A., Bequette, M., Cosbey, A., Haupt, G. & Hughes, C. (2016) Create.Connect Summative Evaluation Report. St. Paul, MN: Science Museum of Minnesota.

Gosselin, V., (2011). Open to interpretation: Mobilizing historical thinking in the museum (Thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada). Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ ubctheses/24/items/1.0055355

Hughes, C. & Cosbey, A. (in press). Exploring the Intersections of Science and History Learning. Journal of Museum Education.

Hughes, C., Mancuso, B., & Cosbey, A. (2015). Technical Leaflet #270: Integrating Science at a History Museum. History News, 70(2). http://resource.aaslh.org/view/technical-leaflet-integrating-science-at-a-history-museum/

Leinhardt, G., Crowley, K. & Knutson, K. (2002). Learning Conversations in Museums. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Leinhardt, G., & Crowley, K. (1998). Museum learning as conversational elaboration: A proposal to capture, code, and analyze talk in museums. Museum Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from http://museumlearning.org/paperresearch.html

Rawson, E. R. (2010). It’s about them: Using developmental frameworks to create exhibitions for children (and their grown-ups). In D. L. McRainey & J. Russick (Eds.), Connecting kids to history with museum exhibitions. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Rosenthal, E., & Blankman-Hetrick, J. (2002). Conversations across time: Family learning in a living history museum. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, K. Knutson, & L. Erlbaum (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp 305-30). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tenenbaum, H. R., Prior, J., Dowling, C. L., & Frost, R. E. (2010), Supporting parent–child conversations in a history museum. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 241–254.