Research to Understand and Inform the Impacts of Ambient and Designed Sound on Informal STEM Learning

October 1st, 2022 - September 30th, 2026 | PROJECT

 This project is designed to support collaboration between informal STEM learning (ISL) researchers, designers, and educators with sound researchers and acoustic ecologists to jointly explore the role of auditory experiences—soundscapes—on learning. In informal STEM learning spaces, where conversation advances STEM learning and is a vital part of the experience of exploring STEM phenomena with family and friends, attention to the impacts of soundscapes can have an important bearing on learning. Understanding how soundscapes may facilitate, spark, distract from, or even overwhelm thinking and conversation will provide ISL educators and designers evidence to inform their practice. The project is structured to reflect the complexity of ISL audiences and experiences; thus, partners include the North Park Village Nature Center located in in a diverse immigrant neighborhood in Chicago; Wild Indigo, a Great Lakes Audubon program primarily serving African American visitors in Midwest cities; an after-school/summer camp provider, STEAMing Ahead New Mexico, serving families in the rural southwest corner of New Mexico, and four sites in Ohio, MetroParks, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and the Center of Science and Industry.

Investigators will conduct large-scale exploratory research to answer an understudied research question: How do environmental sounds impact STEM learning in informal learning spaces?  Researchers and practitioners will characterize and describe the soundscapes throughout the different outdoor and indoor exhibit/learning spaces. Researchers will observe 800 visitors, tracking attraction, attention, dwell time, and shared learning. In addition to observations, researchers will join another 150 visitors for think-aloud interviews, where researchers will walk alongside visitors and capture pertinent notes while visitors describe their experience in real time. Correlational and cluster analyses using machine learning algorithms will be used to identify patterns across different sounds, soundscapes, responses, and reflections of research participants. In particular, the analyses will identify characteristics of sounds that correlate with increased attention and shared learning. Throughout the project, a team of evaluators will monitor progress and support continuous improvement, including guidance for developing culturally responsive research metrics co-defined with project partners. Evaluators will also document the extent to which the project impacts capacity building, and influences planning and design considerations for project partners. This exploratory study is the initial in a larger research agenda, laying the groundwork for future experimental study designs that test causal claims about the relationships between specific soundscapes and visitor learning. Results of this study will be disseminated widely to informal learning researchers and practitioners through workshops, presentations, journal articles, facilitated conversations, and a short film that aligns with the focus and findings of the research.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

Identifying, Perceiving, and Understanding Sound: What We Learned From Participants in Sound Circles Discussions
Identifying, Perceiving, and Understanding Sound: What We Learned From Year 1 In-Person Site Visits
2023 AISL Awardee Mini-Poster: 2215101

Team Members

Martha Merson, Principal Investigator, TERC Inc
Justin Meyer, Co-Principal Investigator
Daniel Shanahan, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2215101
Funding Amount: $1,998,580.00


Access and Inclusion: Black | African American Communities | Ethnic | Racial | Immigrant Communities | Rural
Audience: Evaluators | Families | General Public | Learning Researchers | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Education and learning science | General STEM
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Afterschool Programs | Aquarium and Zoo Exhibits | Citizen Science Programs | Exhibitions | Museum and Science Center Exhibits | Park | Outdoor | Garden Programs | Parks | Outdoor | Garden Exhibits | Public Programs

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This material is supported by National Science Foundation award DRL-2229061, with previous support under DRL-1612739, DRL-1842633, DRL-1212803, and DRL-0638981. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

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