The Authenticity Project: Exploring the Role of Authenticity in Informal STEM Learning (Research Report)

May 30th, 2024 | RESEARCH

Museums, science centers, zoos and other informal science education (ISE) institutions often focus on the real and authentic a way to engage, inspire or inform the public. We refer to this idea of authenticity as providing something real, original or even awe-inspiring to the visitor or learner, be it an object, a setting or an activity of some kind. While those educators, exhibit designers, and program developers who work in ISE settings often recognize authenticity as a critical part of many informal learning experiences, this may be simply be an assumption driven by tradition in practice versus a strategy supported by evidence. This project sought to better understand how and/or why ā€˜the real thingā€™ is important for supporting informal science learning, by seeking, compiling and analyzing existing research across several different disciplines (education, psychology, anthropology, marketing, tourism, etc.) By examining what is already known about authenticity and learning, the project can potentially inform more effective practices in ISE, as well as point to gaps in knowledge that might need further research. Funding was awarded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, starting in Fall 2019. (The pandemic led to some delays in the process, but most work was completed by Fall 2023.)

This report provides an overview of our findings, including a discussion of how authenticity is conceptualized across different disciplines and different authors/researchers. For many, the idea that ā€˜authentic is betterā€™ has become an underlying assumption, with little evidence to support why this is the case. Others point to satisfaction data from visitors that attempt to verify this notion. However, it became clear early on that the concept of authenticity was rather complex, and not simply a matter of whether it is or isnā€™t.

We point to several key themes that were pervasive throughout both theoretical and research-supported literature, and developed a model to better show what factors can potentially influence a personā€™s perception of authenticity, including its relevance for engagement. Our findings suggest that an individualā€™s views on authenticity may ultimately be more important that the assignment of authenticity by an authority or institution.

It is worth noting that we found very limited research across many disciplines that addresses the question of how authenticity influences learning. The few studies that have examined learning outcomes seem to suggest that the authenticity of an object, setting or activity may lead to different learning outcomes (rather than more learning) compared to simulations or replicas. But this is far from the final word, and it seems that considerably more research is needed to better understand the role that ā€˜authenticā€™ plays within the field of informal learning experience.



Team Members

James Kisiel, Principal Investigator, California State University Long Beach, Department of Science Education
Martin Storksdieck, Co-Principal Investigator, Oregon State University STEM Research Center
Kimberley Preston, Contributor, Oregon State University STEM Research Center
Kathleen Westervelt, Contributor, California State University Long Beach, Department of Science Education


Publication: James Kisiel


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 1906889

Related URLs

Research Synthesis: Examining the Role of Authenticity in Informal Science Learning


Audience: Evaluators | Learning Researchers | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Art | music | theater | Education and learning science | General STEM | Social science and psychology
Resource Type: Reference Materials | Report | Research