The Future of Science Based Institutions

The question of co-evolution amongst zoos, aquaria, and science museums has been a lingering muse for decades now.  Back in 1986, Jon Coe cleverly equated the historical relationships to convergent evolution, and through his paper, which was more history lesson than predictor of the future, compared their similarities through time.  Ultimately, he suggests "an awareness of others and ourselves, together with a willingness to communicate, can lead us further into an exciting co-evolution of zoo, aquariums and natural history museums." I'd like to take it a step further.

I often wonder why we separate all of our science institutions, dividing the natural world into equal, but succinct pieces: land animal (zoos), plant (botanical gardens), aquatic animal (aquaria), and the sciences (natural history museums and science centers).  Of course, overlap occurs; zoos have fish and aquatic mammals, botanical gardens have butterfly houses, science museums have dioramas of the natural history of living creatures.  Additionally, the method of teaching the general sciences varies greatly from conservative natural history museum approaches to more "fun" and interactive science centers.

As Coe mentioned, the teaming up of these institutions would be a powerful force.  However, if, going beyond what Coe suggested, we created one institution that presented all of these disciplines, we'd be teaching holistically, presenting a unified view of the natural world that so many children and adults rarely get the chance to see.

The world has changed dramatically since the inception of these learning institutions.  Most zoos and natural history museums began at the turn of the 19th century, when for the good majority of people, we still lived in a mostly untouched rurality.  These people grew up with nature, lived in nature, or could easily visit nature, and learning about the natural world was most easily understood by the breaking down of components.

Today, however, most people live in cities or suburbs.  Any nature we experience regularly is man-made or man-influenced, and certainly does not contain a wide variety of species or habitats.  Learning about nature now becomes easier through an immersive, holistic approach.  Add in society's constant bombardment with story driven entertainment and eye-candy, and learning almost requires the same treatment.  Or so I postulate.

The Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina has already come to the same conclusion.  Currently, they house live animals, present botanical displays, a natural wetland trail, and incorporate hands-on science center activities throughout.  This is not enough for them, however.

We envision a one-of-a-kind place, a science park, offering extraordinary experiences indoors, outdoors, and virtual where children and adults learn through the pursuit of their own interests and curiosity. We will be recognized as the leader in public engagement with science in the Triangle region and as a model for science museums across the nation.

Will this be the future of science institutions?  A one-stop shop, so to speak, for education and entertainment about the natural world?  All things are intertwined; nature is a web of life.  Why not present it that way?

Read the follow-up to this post: 'MULTI-DISCIPLINARY INTEGRATION...A MOUTHFUL OF FUN.'

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Learning at Zoos...Do they get it?

Learning is the culmination of perceptions and knowledge.  It is assessed by changes in attitude and behavior (Powell, 1969).  Therefore, creation of meaning is a form of learning.  "Learning...is the means through which we acquire not only skills and knowledge, but values, attitudes, and emotional reactions" (Taylor, 2002).  As educators know, people learn by different means:  visual clues, reading, hands-on experience, imitation, and so on.  Successful learning generally occurs through repetition and utilization of multiple channels of education (Powell, 1969).  In assigning meaning to a zoo exhibit, a person can learn through contextual clues of the exhibit, written signage, hands-on interpretives, and docents. Although several channels of learning are available to a zoo visitor, it is important to remember that successful education depends on the "inclination and ability to receive and to respond" to these education channels (Taylor, 2002).  Understanding that visitors may or may not be visiting the zoo with the intention of learning is a first step to more successfully educating the visitors.  This means that we must not only provide interesting signage and interpretives, but we have the daunting task of ensuring that every aspect of the exhibit follows the educational message we are intending to send. 

Bronx Zoo

Additionally, we have to create an environment where learning is fun.  Usually, people don't come to the zoo to read.  Walking up to an exhibit with a slew text on a sign can be overly intimidating to visitors.  I've done studies on visitor behavior and have found that barely 2% of visitors completely read text panels next to zoo exhibits.  Most glance at the sign to learn the name of the animal or some other easily accessible information, depending on how the sign is laid out, like where its from or what it eats.  Therefore, learning and meaning assessment is generally accoomplished through visual cues and sensorial experience, and not intentional educational signage. 

Text Heavy Sign

Because of this, many designers live by the notion of "Edutainment" (educational entertainment).  Obviously, this style of design requires us to develop an in-depth story for experience alongside the equally important educational "big idea".  The two intertwine and support each other.  Recently, edutainment has meant an engaging, true to life environment, completely immersing the visitor in the natural habitat of the animal along with the region's cultural cues.  However, I question if we cannot spread our wings a bit from the reality of a specific place to encompass more of a fantasy feeling, to entertain, while still meeting our educational goals. 

Ultimately, learning in zoos and aquariums (and museums, as well) must be recongnized as a crucial component in our designs.  Being responsible designers means to be aware of the meaning our guests assign to the experience they just encountered.  Did the rollercoaster through the orangutan exhibit subconsciously lower the value of the orangutan to the visitor, or did it heighten the excitement of the experience thereby increasing the excitement associated with all aspects of the experience, including the animals related?  Did the addition of text heavy graphics throughout the exhibit make the exhibit less fun for the visitor, or make the information less accessible to them?  What about that trench drain at the foot of the underwater viewing area?  How does that affect the viewer's experience? 

Zoo Atlanta

At the heart of the issue is why we are doing what we do.  Connection.  If someone doesnt entirely get all of the educational goals at the end of their experience, but do walk away thinking, Man, those Orangutans are cool!  Then we did our job, in my humble opinion.