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Bringing Research and Practice Together in a Museum: A Partnership to Develop Informal Learning Experiences for 21st-Century Naturalism

Fri, April 28, 10:35am to 12:05pm, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, Floor: Meeting Room Level, Room 221 C


Studies of out of school learning experiences have shown the unique and special power of informal learning environments; the intrinsic motivation, the connection to self-identity, the social nature of learning, the deep dives around topics of interest, and the impact on positive youth development. As recent National Academies consensus reports suggest, the very outcomes which are most strongly supported by informal environments are often the same outcomes that are most difficult to support in schools.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and educators and curators at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History are working together to understand how to help the Museum become a more engaged and outward focused community resource, and to find new ways to activate the existing resources within the museum in the context of the broader educational ecology in the region. Projects that involve school districts and community based organizations, that target different kinds of audiences than the traditional general visiting public, and that provide professional development to support staff in better accommodating and mediating these experiences are helping to reshape the Museum as a place that is better suited for the challenges of the future.

In this poster, we describe two lines of work that exemplify the opportunities (and challenges) of research/practice partnerships in informal settings, and reflect upon how our findings might generalize beyond our partnership.

One strand of work is design-based research where we explored strategies to facilitate family engagement with natural history dioramas. Across a series of design studies, 295 family groups with at least one adult and one child aged 4-18 were observed at a wildlife diorama of a deer in its natural habitat. Each mini-study tested a different intervention intended to encourage families to engage more deeply with the diorama. Compared to baseline, all interventions supported increased engagement, but some interventions were more successful at engaging younger children, increasing conversations about biodiversity and ecosystems issues, or in developing science skills such as observation and classification. We discuss how design conjectures from these studies are getting traction (or not) in broader design work at the museum.

In a second line of work, we are developing and refining a common research and practice agenda around the notion of the 21st Century Naturalist. We will describe how the process is designed to energize museum staff to think about potential connections between experiences in and outside the museum. We are asking, for example:

• How do experiences in natural history settings support interest in, and connection to, nature for youth in our region?

• 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 we engage the diverse range of urban audiences in Pittsburgh in terms of becoming 21st Century naturalists?