Nicky Hayes examines how to measure the impact of science exhibitions.
The first World Congress of Science Centres, held in Finland in 1996, was an exhilarating affair. Large-scale demonstrations, small-scale workshops, formal lectures and illustrations of scientific principles in magic shows combined with formal research papers to bring together people involved with science exhibitions from all over the world.
One paper made more of an impact on me than just about anything else. It reported an evaluation of an exhibition. The researchers had stopped people at the door as they left and asked them what they had learned. Unsurprisingly, most visitors were not able to say what they had learned and, when pressed, were unsure whether they had actually learned anything. The researchers concluded that science exhibitions are ineffective because people do not learn science from them.
How breathtakingly naive - I was stunned. The follow-up from that, and my own interest in interactive exhibits, led to a collaboration with Roland Jackson and Peter Trevitt at the Science Museum in London. By the time of the second World Congress of Science Centres, held in Calcutta three years later, we were in a position to outline the theoretical model I developed and the way it was proving useful at the Science Museum.
The model covers the design features of interactive exhibits, the psychological mechanisms that they elicit, and the outcomes that result. There are six sets of design features, including choice and multiple outcomes, how much control people can exert over the activity, whether it involves cooperation and social interaction, the use of senses other than vision and hearing, and so on.
The psychological aspects include self-efficacy beliefs, constructive memory, personal constructs, social representations, social identification, sensation-seeking and other well-established mechanisms. We have done some preliminary exploration of relationships between these and the design features, and plan a fuller programme of research into the area; but there is not a simple one-to-one relationship between them.
The most useful part of the model, how-ever, judging by responses from those working in the area, is the way that outcomes are specified. The ancient Greeks talked in terms of three domains of the psyche: cognitive (thinking, remembering and so on), conative (intentionality and will) and affective (feelings and emotions). At the beginning of this century, the behaviourists replaced the conative domain with the behavioural one. So the model ends up specifying four outcome domains: cognitive, conative, affective and behavioural.
Interactive exhibits can have outcomes in the cognitive domain: people learn information about a particular topic. But interactives also have outcomes in the conative domain: they challenge learned helplessness and passivity, encourage a sense of agency and competence, and they foster intentions or readiness to engage with "science" - or at least with new learning experiences - in the future. Interactives have outcomes in the affective domain: they generate new sensations, they present challenges, and people enjoy them. Interactives also have outcomes in the behavioural domain: people engage with them in ways that are very different from the way they engage with passive exhibits. This approach to outcomes makes a tremendous difference to how we go about evaluation research, because it requires each domain to be addressed in its own right. We can gain a number of insights, for instance, from observations of how people actually behave in a visit to a science centre and from other behavioural data such as the frequency of returns or the nature and size of their group. We can also gain insights from conative information - about their intentions, about their perceived receptiveness to scientific knowledge, and so on. We can gain useful information from evaluations of the affective domain: not just whether they enjoyed the experiences, but more specific feelings and emotions elicited by particular exhibits. And of course the cognitive domain also provides us with useful evaluative material. Combining them all gives us a much richer picture of the science-centre experience.
The model has been used in evaluation research in the United Kingdom and overseas. To use it fully requires a range of research methods and analytical techniques; and these are readily available to the modern researcher. My textbook, Doing Psychological Research , outlines qualitative and quantitative analytical techniques, as well as several different data-collection techniques.
That study at the Finnish conference in 1996 showed just how misleading commonsense perceptions can be. We have gone beyond single-method analysis, as we have gone beyond simplistic models. The end result is a much richer and far more useful level of understanding.
Nicky Hayes is lecturer in social psychology, University of Bradford.