A Research Agenda for Learning in Natural History Settings

natural history conference listing

June 26th, 2014

I. The Research Agenda Process

This research agenda is a living document, constructed in response to on-going field-wide conversations following the 21st Century Natural History Settings Conference at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. At the conference, natural history professionals explored new directions for museums and other natural history institutions, including zoos, aquaria, botanical gardens, and nature centers. One outcome of the meeting was a values statement (the “Declaration of Interdependence”) that emphasized the need to come together as a field of natural history learning to help re-position our organizations as vital social institutions with a responsibility to support learning that equips diverse groups of citizens to respond to the pressing socio-scientific needs of the 21st century.

Another main outcome of the meeting was laying the groundwork for the development of a research agenda. Participants met over several days to discuss the questions for research and practice that were of most interest to them as individuals, to their home institutions, and to the field writ large. Parallel sessions involved open discussion and the generation of questions, which were then collated, synthesized, and refined into a central set of shared categories for a research agenda.

Subsequent to the meeting, the field has continued to debate and refine the specifics of its research agenda. The conference and agenda has motivated several journal articles, been shared in numerous international conference sessions, and served as the organizing framework for an online forum for informal learning researchers, practitioners, and evaluators. At each of these moments, the agenda has progressively evolved as a direct result of feedback and contributions from learning professionals all over the world.

The research agenda is intended to be edited, discussed, and fleshed out by the field as we work together and make progress. New research questions will emerge spurred by surprising findings, innovations in practice, and theory building. Newcomers to the field will bring fresh perspectives and challenges to conventional thinking. The research agenda is intended to support field-building and collaborative work, and thus to help catalyze and characterize an evidence-based, theory rich, and practice-based conversation about the future of natural history learning.

II. What constitutes an effective research agenda?

Throughout the research agenda development process, three characteristics have emerged.

There are unique assets that natural history settings bring to the table. The field has been clear that it wants to focus most on the key characteristics and affordances for learning in natural history settings. What is different about learning in these settings? What are the powerful contributions that these settings make that other settings cannot make? At the same time, while emphasizing the defining characteristics of the natural history settings, the agenda should also refer to and build upon extant research on informal learning. There is no need to start over from scratch. There is much that the field can learn from learning research in other informal settings.

Good research questions lead to innovation and improved practice. An effective research agenda is different from a plan to evaluate the effectiveness of natural history settings. There are frequent calls for evidence that can “prove” that natural history settings make a difference in terms of outcomes such as scientific literacy, environmental stewardship, or STEM education. Such evidence would, indeed, be useful for natural history institutions, many of who feel increasing pressure to justify their existence in tough economic times.

But a research agenda is different than an evaluation (or efficacy) agenda. A research agenda should help to organize our work in ways that encourage collaboration, field-building, and, most importantly, progress. Good problems for a research agenda are those that (1) represent core challenges that would likely lead to innovation and improved practice; and (2) are sufficiently tractable so that a coordinated effort by the field over the next few years would have a high probability of leading to breakthroughs.

Research and practice in tandem. The field is motivated by recent work that highlights the achievements that are possible when research and practice work more closely in tandem. To build permanent bridges between research and practice, it is helpful to frame natural history learning questions in terms that researchers are able to connect to their interest and ongoing research problems. But the problems addressed in this research agenda need to ring true in practice.

III. The Agenda

The research agenda (circa spring 2014) addresses five core areas:

  • Communication between scientists and the public
  • Collections and learning with objects
  • Learning in natural history domains
  • Mediation and facilitation
  • Learning and organizations


The first three areas are particularly relevant to the assets and affordances of informal natural history settings, and thus the field of natural history learning is in a unique position to advance research in those areas. The last two areas overlap to a greater extent with work in other informal STEM learning areas, but are of particular interest to the missions of natural history learning settings.

1. Communication between scientists and the public

Perhaps more so than any other informal learning setting, natural history settings provide research homes to working scientists. Scientists build, maintain, and do research on the collections, conduct field research on natural history topics, get involved in administration, and often contribute to the public educational missions of institutions as well. Much of this work used to happen behind the scenes and out of the public eye, but museums are increasingly working to establish direct lines of communication between scientists and the public to share vital and relevant findings with the community. The broader field of science communication is actively exploring new ways to think about the relation of science and the public, including more dialogic and collaborative roles for scientists—roles that go beyond one-way telling and information-heavy educational exchanges.

Natural history settings afford a wide range of opportunities to explore these new roles, ranging from structured dialogs or one-on-one interactions with the public on the floor of museums, to field-work with citizen scientists, to on-line and distance interactions. This interest parallels that of other informal and formal science communities where a belief in the power of “thinking like a scientist” or “seeing scientists” helps to personalize and empower visitor learning.

Examples of field initiated questions:

  • Does interacting with scientists influence perceptions of and excitement about science/natural history and do these vary by audience?
  • What are the factors/design characteristics of scientist-facilitated experiences that can effectively engage non-dominant audiences?
  • In what ways does interacting with scientists, objects, or processes encourage new interest and engagement with natural history?


2. Collections and Learning From Objects

The collections found in natural history settings contribute key evidence that is at the foundation of many central areas of science, from the evolution of life, to the geologic history of the earth and solar system, to climate change, biodiversity, and the growth of culture and human civilization. Collections have long been built and maintained with both scientific and educational rationales. The living collections found in zoos, botanical gardens, and aquaria share these rationales, and oftentimes also include conservation as a goal as well—to maintain biodiversity that may be disappearing in the wild.

Museums have long struggled with finding ways to help visitors navigate the enormity of collections. But corresponding learning research around collections has lagged. We know relatively little about how people learn science through exploring collections or the unique learning opportunities that may be afforded by a collection. Collections, of course, are constructed of objects. And although the topic of object-based learning has been in vogue at various times in the history of educational research, it is perhaps more relevant now than ever in light of the rapid advances in digital technology and questions about what is real, what is virtual, and whether that makes any differences to what and how we learn about science.

Examples of field initiated questions:

  • What would it take to have visitors value natural history museums (NHM) primarily for our collections?
  • To what extent do experiences provide opportunities for visitors (and learning outcomes) that support the mission of the museum—that collections are our most important asset?
  • Do publics understand our public value?
  • What is the role of the “real:” real scientist, real collection, etc.? What is the advantage/value of having the “real?”
  • What are differences in using new media to either approximate or take it deeper/further than real objects can?


3. Learning in Natural History Domains

As described in a consensus study from the National Academies of Science, informal science learning is a relatively new field, although many of its constituent institutions, such as natural history museums, have been around for many years. Museums, media, community organizations, afterschool and summer programs, and university outreach, among others, are all part of a broader informal learning infrastructure that provides opportunities for life-long learning and engagement. There is a large evidence base to suggest that these interest-driven, free choice environments support learning and can play an important role in larger learning pathways whereby people develop an interest and engagement with science—as citizens, hobbyists, educators, and professionals.

But what is the evidence base, specifically, concerning natural history settings? Natural history settings are committed to research and learning in domains such as evolution, biodiversity, and climate change. They are invested in scientific thinking skills such as observation, description, tree-thinking, and modeling. Do these domains bring specific challenges in terms of learning? What can the close study of natural history learning experiences add to our general knowledge of how people learn science in informal settings?

Another domain of interest is learning about and connecting to nature more generally. Research on understandings of nature exists in varied locations, and there isn’t a strong consensus on this topic yet. We currently know little about the continuity of learning about nature and the ways in which experiences with nature provide a resource for environmental discussions. So this could be a fruitful area to explore further, connecting with the environmental education community, and looking for specifically germane examples for natural history settings.

Finally, throughout the research agenda development process, there have been many conversations about the need to connect with and support the learning of diverse audiences. We include these conversations under the topic of STEM learning, as they deal with one of key questions of education: For whom and under what conditions are our interventions successful?

Examples of field initiated questions:

  • What conceptual building blocks can we leverage to support learning of critical concepts such as evolution in museums?
  • How can we measure/understand intuitive or culturally-based concepts that visitors bring with them into the museum? And how do they bring their concepts into contact with the scientific concepts portrayed in the museum?
  • What are the cultural components that impact visitor learning? Prior experience? Age? Urbanization? Distance from nature?
  • What are the differences in learning outcomes between exhibits that elicit different valences (e.g. pleasure – displeasure)? What are the implications for critical or controversial exhibits that may evoke unpleasant feelings in visitors or that may challenge their beliefs about socio-scientific topics?
  • How do difficult to understand concepts such as deep-time, tree-thinking, or emergent phenomena act as barriers to learning about critical content such as evolution, bio-diversity, or climate change?
  • How do experiences in natural history settings result in interest in and connection to nature?
  • Do groups in diverse geographic settings (e.g., urban/rural/inner city) have different perceptions of and connections to nature? What are these connections and what are their implications for engaging these audiences in critical issues such as climate change?


4. Facilitation and mediation

How do we design informal natural history experiences to best facilitate learning? Throughout the research agenda development process, we tracked many conversations about the need to update traditional exhibitions and programs to reflect new knowledge of how people learn as well as new opportunities created by digital technology and social media. Although all informal learning settings are interested in facilitation and mediation, there are specific opportunities and obstacles in natural history settings that motivate sustained research and practice collaboration.


Examples of field initiated questions:

  • What are the most powerful ways for educators and docents to support learning?
  • What everyday social practices can we leverage to improve learning in museums?
  • How do we think about the balance between universal themes and individualized narratives in terms of engaging the public with natural history?
  • What’s the role of structured guidance (via signage and other means) in encouraging observation, conversation, and learning?
  • What are the affordances of various types of media (digital and “real”) and how do those affordances affect learning outcomes? How can we effectively support digital media use in a museum visit?
  • How can museums maintain authority and trust in new media?
  • What’s the way to think about blogging, tweeting, on-line discussion, etc. as building a learning relationship between science and the public?
  • How should our scientists, educators, and objects be presented in ways that encourage their re-use and distribute through social media?


5. Connecting learning and organizational change in museums

Natural history settings can be complex organizations. Learning and education is only one goal for institutions, and sometimes not even the most prominent or shared goal across the many kinds of people who work in these settings. Large institutions such as museums have science divisions, marketing and development departments, visitor services groups, exhibition and experience departments, and so on. How do we refocus our field, and the organizations and professionals within it, so that learning becomes a priority for all? How do we share knowledge about research and practice as an ongoing part of our work?

Examples of field initiated questions:

  • What kind of organizations are in the field of natural history learning and how do they learn and organize to support learning?
  • How should we partner with other organizations in ways that increase the coherence and richness of the learning ecology for learners who move between our settings? How do we partner in ways that increase connectivity and motivate us to keep working once the funding is over?
  • Who are our institutions organized to serve? What characteristics indicate this kind of organization? What organizational structures are needed to reach a broader audience?
  • What kinds of institutional structures stand in the way of or facilitate the uptake of new practices and concepts?
  • How can we develop, support and maintain cross-institution practices of facilitation among staff with varying degrees of alignment with educational departments?


Reported by Kevin Crowley & Karen Knutson, based on field-wide conversations facilitated by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s 21st Century Learning in Natural History Settings Process and the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE).

Email contact: crowleyk@pitt.edu