May 8, 2019

Class of 2018: Attractions like zoos combat pseudoscience and fake news

Werklund School grad student Lauryn Record delves into how we glean information from 'non-formal' sources

  • Above: Lauryn Record believes facilities such as the Calgary Zoo play an important role in supporting science literacy.

In a time when fake news, bots and pseudoscience make it challenging for individuals to separate fact from fiction, Werklund School of Education graduate student Lauryn Record is exploring the increasing significance of the non-formal science education taking place at museums, science centres, zoos and aquariums.

Record’s extensive experience as an education interpreter and program developer spurred her to pursue a Master of Science degree in Curriculum and Learning, centred on helping these organizations build better exhibits that result in increased scientific literacy, advocacy and action.

“Because museums, science centres, zoos and aquariums, or MCZAs, have such a large combined visitation, we have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to collectively support and advocate for science, especially as scientific literacy rates continue to struggle,” she says. “MCZAs must demonstrate strong science leadership by addressing controversial issues such as evolutionary biology and climate change with factual content presented in a visitor-targeted manner.”

Defining non-formal education

Record observed exhibits and spoke with professionals at facilities throughout North America for her thesis and explains that non-formal education is any learning individuals freely choose to undertake outside of the traditional school system. It is this free choice that gives this type of knowledge acquisition considerable power.

“Non-formal learning is inherently a voluntary and visitor-driven exercise. The visitor will engage with elements that interest them, so we have an opportunity to connect with them on a deeper level based on the intersection between our mission and their interests,” Record says.

Measuring success

Just as the motivations of patrons differ, so to do the specific experiences and missions for the various institutions. Record believes what these organizations have in common is the fundamental challenge of creating a captivating experience that engages individuals long enough to share knowledge.

“The biggest question for the professionals working in these spaces is whether the visitor is taking away the intended message," she says. "If not, then we have not been successful in our educational approach despite how entertaining or enjoyable the experience may be.”

Success, Record believes, can be achieved by integrating audience needs with purposeful design and interpretive techniques that use the unique nature of the facilities’ resources, whether these resources be live animals, historical or natural artifacts, or fossils. Sensory manipulation, emotional connections, problem solving and inquiry are just a few techniques designers can use to engage visitors.

One effective example she found was the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Designers provided participants with access to horizontal interactive touchscreens that simulate MRI technology in a puzzle format so they could make injury diagnoses, while also sharing step-by-step information on how the technology was developed.

“The learner is equally engaged in every step of the interaction, and is rewarded when they have used their new knowledge to identify the correct answer and solve the puzzle,” Record explains.

Partnering with formal education

It is these types of hands-on experiences that allow non-formal learning to complement, rather than replace, formal learning.

“Non-formal facilities have the tremendous advantage of being able to exhibit educational content often using the very evidence or collections that led to that content being developed in the first place," says Record. "A natural history museum displaying fossil material or a zoo with live animals can reach visitors in a manner unique from a traditional classroom model.”

Responding to changing times

Record believes exhibit designers are favourably positioned to support scientific literacy and that they have adapted their practices in response to cultural and technological changes.

“Interpretive education professionals are experts in understanding visitor motivation and developing thematic content that is relevant to visitors and forges emotional connection while supporting organizational missions. We are no longer simply the keepers of knowledge with a mission of solely sharing information with visitors. As our audiences and their needs, motivations and values shift, our goals do as well,” she says.

So what does Record predict for the future of museums, science centres, zoos and aquariums?

“I think that MCZAs will play an even greater role in supporting lifelong learning and receive greater recognition as educational facilities as opposed to merely tourist attractions. As we continue to advocate for global issues such as climate change, wildlife conservation and historical preservation, we will support connecting humans to the planet and be recognized as educational leaders.”