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Experiencing a constructivist museum exhibit: A case study of twelve children and their families

Purdue University
Publication Date
  • Education
  • Sciences
  • Design
  • Education


The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council have called for the creation of a scientifically literate populace and introduced science standards and guidelines to direct this process. Science education in traditional school settings plays a key role in reaching this goal, but individuals over their lifetimes will have more exposure to science ideas through informal science experiences such as visits to museums and through diverse media sources. ^ The purpose of this study was to explore the role museums play in this journey to science literacy. This qualitative collective case study examined the experience of 12 children and their families in a children's museum as they interacted with an exhibit designed along the tenets of constructivist theory to introduce children to ideas of science. Twelve children and their families were videotaped interacting with a model of a watershed that included the stream, surrounding land, gravel, and dam building and erosion abatement manipulatives. Children were interviewed to ascertain their stream-related ideas and conceptual understanding prior to and after using the exhibit. Parents completed demographic and post-exhibit experience questionnaires. Two museum staff members who played key roles in the development of the exhibit and surrounding gallery were also interviewed. Individual and cross-case analyses were done to describe the experience of each child and family, and to elucidate the commonalities of these experiences to describe the phenomenon of using a constructivist-based science exhibit. ^ Results of the study indicate (1) the type of experience children and families had at the exhibit depended on child and parent interactions and roles each assumed, and (2) experience with the exhibit encouraged children to think more deeply about water topics, past experiences, and ideas they had previously constructed. Implications of this research include (1) parents should engage children physically and mentally, focusing attention on their children and their interests, and encourage the children to analyze their actions, (2) museum professionals need to be aware of ways they can help parents interact effectively with their children, and (3) museum researchers need to examine how research in science classrooms can inform research in informal environments. ^

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