ISE plays a role in fostering improved public understanding of current scientific research

January 1st, 2016

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Alan Friedman (2011) puts forth a meaningful metaphor for understanding Informal Science Education (ISE).  He equates ISE with a well equipped gymnasium.  The gym exists but unless visitors decide to engage with the facilities, there will be no discernable impact upon improved health.  The same is true for ISE. Opportunities to learn science can be developed, but without adults making the choice to interact with the resource, no learning will result. It is therefore not surprising that the most motivated and interested adults demonstrated the highest learning gains (Sachatello-Sawyer, 2006). The challenge for ISE therefore is to identify meaningful strategies for attracting the attention of adults and then follow up with opportunities for engagement.  Only after engaging with a science learning resource can desired outcomes become possible for interested adults. Falk and Dierking (2010) make a bold, eloquent, and convincing argument for the critical role ISE needs to play in supporting a life long spiral of learning for all adults.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

ISE as a Nexus for Engagement

Adults learn from informal science education opportunities, but it is imperative to tailor these experiences to adult interest/needs, the context of learning, and relevant to the broader society.  Miller (2004) conducted a historical analysis that examines the trends associated with the public’s understanding and appreciation of science. Today, there is a trend among ISE institutions to see their mission as more than providing artifacts and exhibits to engage visitors.  The grander mission involves using the ISE institution as a nexus for community involvement and action.  Kadlac (2009) suggests that informal science learning venues have yet to realize their potential as catalysts for public learning about contemporary scientific issues.  As non-partisan trusted institutions, science museums can do more to promote improved public problem solving around vexing issues such as climate change, energy, and technology ready workforce. By providing ongoing opportunities for adults and families to experience science through inquiry, interact with scientists, or learn about current innovations and discoveries, ISE becomes a more dynamic means of providing opportunities to connect adults with specific, timely, and relevant scientific issues.  The following research and literature provides a brief sampling of ways ISE is engaging adults with current scientific research.

For an overview of the issues involved in bringing research to the fore in museum settings, including examples of how museums work to create dialogue around the processes of science see Chittendon, Farmelo and Lewenstein, 2013. Exhibit design is the most common means that Informal Science Institutions (ISI) use to attract audiences.  In a bold effort, Disney World was interested in understanding the impact of their Animal Kingdom on visitors attitudes and understanding toward conservation. Adelman, Dierking, and Ogden (2004) conducted the evaluation and found the Disney exhibit to be quite effective at achieving its desired outcomes. Asking the same question in a more traditional informal setting, Falk et al. (2007) found that a visit to a zoo or aquarium had a measurable improvement upon adult visitors’ attitudes and understanding of conservation.

Bringing Adults and Scientists Together

More and more, Informal Science Institutions are positioning themselves to be a bridge between the work of scientists and the general public. Bell (2007) outlines an initiative at the Boston Museum of Science to bring scientists together with public audiences in meaningful and engaging ways. The successful effort builds upon the documented trust adults have in science museums as valued sources of information. Davis (2004) describes another program at the Boston Museum of Science to engage the public in current and emerging scientific discoveries and developments through a variety of virtual and face to face opportunities. Currently the Museum is engaged in “living laboratory” model whereby early-childhood researchers conduct research in the MOS Discovery Center for young children and interact with visitors to explain what their research is finding about child development and cognition (see here). With growing popularity of online social networks, public audiences can now engage with scientists in real time chats, tweets, and webcasts. Physical locale no longer need define an ISI’s audience.  In fact, the world wide web has become one of the most popular sources of free learning with 87% of adult internet users turning to the web for scientific information (Pew Internet Project and the Exploratorium, 2006).

Using Technology to Foster Engagement

If ISIs want to be meaningful information brokers and science educators for adults, then it is imperative to understand what motivates and intrigues their potential audience. Level of interest and educational background have been found to be consistent indicators of effective adult learning experiences in science. For example, Flynn et al. (2006) studied more than 6000 senior citizens to understand their use of the internet as means of free choice learning regarding health related issues. Time used to learn online was dependent upon both psychological and health related variables.  Another effective strategy for engaging adults science learning is through their hobbies and interests.  Brossard, Lewenstein, and Bonney (2005) used ornithology to attract adults bird lovers and promote positive attitudes and learning about conservation and the environment. Finally, in a study that examined adults’ understanding of the nature of science and the authority scientific knowledge, Brossard and Shanahan (2003) found that level of education was directly correlated with positive attitudes towards scientific authority. They also found that actual experience with inquiry is an effective means of fostering understanding of the nature of science. A view of scientific knowledge as fundamentally constructed from evidence rather than merely factual or received from authoritative sources can provide a critical stands from which the public can evaluate claims in relation to evidence.


Adelman, L. M., Dierking, L. D., & Ogden, J. (2004). Using a behavior change model to document the impact of visits to Disney’s Animal Kingdom: A study investigating intended conservation action. Curator, 47(3): 322-343.

Bell, L. (2007). Who Do You Trust? Science Museums as Forums for Conversations between Scientists and the Public. Presentation at Institutional and Societal Issues-Public Perceptions and Responsibilities: Lisbon, Portugal.

Brossard, D., Lewenstein, B., and Bonney, R. (2005). Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science program. International Journal of Science Education, 27(9), 1099-1121. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Brossard, D., and Shanahan, J. (2003). Do they want to have their say? Media, agricultural biotechnology, and authoritarian views of democratic processes in science. Mass Communication and Society, 6(3), 291-312.

Chittenden, D., Farmelo, G., Lewenstein, B. (eds.). (2013). Creating connections: Museums and the public understanding of current research. Altamira Press.

Davis, T. (2004). Report: Engaging the Public with Science As It Happens. Science Communication, Volume 26, Issue 1, p.107-113. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Falk, J. and Dierking, L. (2010). The 95 percent solution. American Scientist v. 98, pp. 486-493. Retrieved from

Falk, J.; Reinhard, E.M.; Vernon, C.L.; Bronnenkant, K.; Deans, N.L.; Heimlich, J.E., (2007). Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD.

Friedman, A. (2011). Evidence for the impact of informal science learning. Public Essay. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Flynn, K.E., Smith, M.A., and Freese, J. (2006). When do older adults turn to the Internet for health information? Findings from the Wisconsin longitudinal study. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 21(12), 1295-1301.

Kadlec, A. (2009). Mind the gap: science museums as sources of civic innovation, Museums and Social Issues, 4(1), 37-54. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Miller, J.D. (2004). Public understanding of and attitudes toward scientific research: What we know and what we need to know. Public Understanding of Science, 13(3), 273-294. Accessed April 9th, 2013 from

Pew Internet Project/Exploratorium (2006). The Internet as a resource for news and information about science.  Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Sachatello-Sawyer, B. (2006). Adults and informal science learning. Presentation to the National Research Council Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, Washington, DC.