Understanding Current Research Via the AZA Framework

20160216 spotlight aza

February 16th, 2016

Under the guidance of the Conservation Education Committee (CEC) at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Visitor Studies Initiative* has been conducting a study to determine the state of educational evaluation and research at AZA institutions. Many AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are conducting important and useful research and evaluation work with their educational programs. As we continue to advance our understanding of the visitor experience, it is critical for us to know what areas have already been researched and where we might direct future efforts. This is an ongoing project to determine the understudied topics and gaps in knowledge that exist in our field. Using this information, we will be able to determine areas of research that will enhance our strategic thinking and, ultimately, our conservation messaging and impact.

This project effectively begins with the AZA Framework for Zoo and Aquarium Social Science Research (Fraser et al., 2010), funded by the National Science Foundation and created by members of the AZA and researchers formerly associated with the Institute for Learning Innovation and The Ohio State University Extension. Out of this framework emerge seven questions meant to guide research and evaluation efforts, generated after a thorough review and synthesis of the work that has been done thus far. The questions posed in the framework are:

  1. What role do zoos and aquariums play in lifelong learning experiences?
  2. How do zoos and aquariums compare with other informal learning institutions?
  3. How do zoos and aquariums shape social action and social activism?
  4. What role do zoos or aquariums play regarding social services
  5. What are the unique characteristics of learning in zoos and aquariums?
  6. What are the characteristics of a zoo or aquarium education profession?
  7. How do we assess, disseminate, and apply existing knowledge

Once the framework was established, we needed to determine where existing research fit into each of these categories. We are currently focused on the first question, regarding the role of zoos and aquariums in lifelong learning. We divided this learning into several sub-topics, including audiences reached and cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes.

To gather this information, we sent a survey to educators at AZA institutions using listservs, conferences, and personal networks to ensure a broad reach. Thus far, we have received 89 submissions from 22 distinct institutions, including universities, zoos, and aquariums. Submissions represent ongoing as well as past research dating back to 2005.

  • 17% (15) studies submitted were part of a thesis or dissertation
  • 16% (14) studies have been published in a peer-reviewed journal
  • 17% (15) have been presented formally at a professional conference

While we are still in the midst of a more detailed analysis, we are able to share some preliminary results:

Audiences reached: More than half (65%) of studies submitted apply to the role of zoos and aquariums in learning. Of these, adults are the most heavily studied group, followed by families, high school youth, and elementary school aged youth (early and late elementary). Volunteers, general zoo visitors, seniors, and grandparents are the least studied groups.

Cognitive outcomes: 37% of studies cite at least one cognitive outcome addressed by their project. Among these studies, the most common cognitive outcome was related to an understanding of animals (73%), followed by an understanding of conservation (55%). Only 12% of studies include outcomes related to an understanding of climate change, and 6% include outcomes related to an understanding of sustainability.

Affective outcomes: 61% of submitted studies report measuring an affective outcome. Of these studies, 63% focus on measuring held attitudes toward animals and 43% focus on held attitudes toward conservation. 54% measure a sense of connection to animals, and 35% measure a sense of connection to nature. Lastly, 33% of the studies submitted measure held attitudes toward zoos and aquariums.

Behavioral outcomes: 18% of studies submitted report that they measure lifestyle of behavioral changes among their audience.

Our next step is to dig more deeply into these results. We are approaching this by focusing on what we believe to be some of the most pertinent questions in our field, where a better knowledge of current research would be especially beneficial. Our first area of inquiry is behavior change – who is studying it, what they are studying, and what they are finding. In this way, the project is often pivoting and going in new new directions. Many of the usual challenges apply: getting enough data, knowing when and where to make design decisions and stick to them, getting enough data, coordinating a group of researchers around the country, getting enough data… We have tried some creative solutions (and some not-so-creative ones) and found successes with each. At the 2015 AZA conference in Salt Lake City, a standing-room-only roundtable on visitor studies gave us the opportunity to ask participants to engage in conversation about topics that interested them and request information on their institution’s research and evaluation work in person. This was our most successful strategy and resulted in most of the data we are looking at now.

Although we have been working on different stages of this project for a number of years, in many ways we are still at the beginning. There are more questions from the framework that we have yet to address, and likely our findings from each question will inform the others – and we imagine (and hope) that this will be a quite cyclical and iterative process with many interesting findings to come.


Fraser, J., Heimlich, J.E., Ogden, J., Atkins, A., McReynolds, S., Chen, C. Searles, V., Sloan, P., Pletcher, N. & Boyle, P. (2010). The AZA’s Framework for Zoo and Aquarium Social Science Research. Silver Spring, MD: Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

*Currently, the Visitor Studies Initiative includes Danielle Ross (Columbus Zoo and Aquarium), Nette Pletcher (AZA), Kerry Carlin-Morgan (Oregon Coast Aquarium), Louise Bradshaw (St. Louis Zoo), Stacy Graison (Naples Zoo), Kathryn Owen (Kathryn Owen Consulting), Joe Heimlich (Lifelong Learning Group), James Danoff-Berg (New Knowledge Organization), Katie Manion (Maryland Zoo), Jim Wharton (Seattle Aquarium), Bart Roselli (Seneca Zoo), and myself, Kathayoon Khalil from the Seattle Aquarium.