The Learning Research Agenda group will discuss themes and trends for research about learning in and about natural history settings, particularly natural history museums, emerging from conference sessions and working groups.

Trending Topics and Potential Questions in a Natural History Museum Learning Research Agenda

Feb 2012 meeting on 21st Century Learning in Natural History Settings []

1. How people learn about critical concepts: Ecology, Evolution, Climate Change, Extinction, Biodiversity

How can we measure/understand intuitive or culturally-based concepts (the foundation for understanding) that visitors bring with them into the museum?
How can we help visitors supplement intuitive or cultural frameworks with more scientific understandings?
What are the cultural components that bind frameworks? Experience? Age? Urbanization? Distance from nature?
How do cultural beliefs mesh with more mainstream conceptual frameworks?
What everyday social practices can we leverage to improve learning in museums?
What conceptual building blocks (locally coherent network of ideas) can we leverage to support learning of critical concepts in museums?

2. Reaching new audiences, broadening our impact

Do groups in diverse geographic settings (e.g., urban/rural/inner city) have different perceptions of and connections to nature? What are these connections and what are their implications for engaging these audiences in critical issues such as climate change?
What is the transferability of what we know about collections/object-based learning for "traditional" museum visitors to other potential audiences/non-dominant groups? (For example, what are implications of object-based learning for sight-impaired groups?)
Does interacting with scientists influence perceptions of and excitement about science/natural history and do these vary by audience? What are the factors/ design characteristics of scientist-facilitated experiences that can effectively engage non-dominant audiences?
What questions do underrepresented communities have about sense of place? What are the personally relevant and science learning that naturally happens in non-dominant communities that can inform basic theory and design for natural history settings that can meaningfully attend to the context and practices of these communities?

3. Facilitation and mediation

What are the affordances of various types of media (digital and “real”) and how do those affordances affect learning outcomes? How can we effectively support digital media use in a museum visit?
How do we think about the balance between universal themes and individualized narratives in terms of engaging the public with natural history?
How can we develop, support and maintain cross-institution practices of facilitation among staff with varying degrees of alignment with educational departments?
In what ways does interacting with scientists, objects, or processes encourage new interest and engagement with natural history? How can we design mediation/facilitation to encourage learning?
How can museums maintain authority and trust in new media? What’s the way to think about blogging, tweeting, on-line discussion, etc. as building a learning relationship between science and the public? How should our scientists, educators, and objects be presented in ways that encourage their re-use and distribute through social media?

4. Exploring the connection between emotion and learning
Given that many exhibits have a strong affective component, how can we measure the emotion that people are experiencing in informal learning institutions?
What is the role of emotion (i.e. arousal, valence) in short- and long-term learning and what other factors (e.g. motivation) affect these relationships? How do we evoke emotion and how does that make something memorable, relevant, interesting, threatening, boring, etc.?
What are the differences in learning outcomes between exhibits that elicit different valences (e.g. pleasure - displeasure)? What are the implications for "critical" exhibits that may evoke unpleasant feelings in visitors?

5. Collections and Learning From Objects

Research questions could be generated by connecting strands of informal science learning with facets of our collections. Audience is a cross-cutting issue and each cell in the matrix could include nested questions about learners of different ages, education-level, social grouping, etc.

Strands of Learning
(NRC’s LSIE Report)
Accessibility to sensory perception & manipulation
1. excitement, interest, and motivation

2. generate, understand, remember, and use concepts

3. Manipulate, test, explore, predict, question, observe, and make sense

4. Reflect on science as a way of knowing

5. Participate in scientific activities and learning practices with others

6. Think about self as science learner; science identity

Some examples of questions inside this matrix could be:
What would it take to have visitors value NHM primarily for our collections? To what extent do experiences provide opportunities for visitors (and learning outcomes) that support the mission of the museum—that collections are our most important asset. Do publics get our public value?
What is the role of the “real:” real scientist, real collection, etc.? What is the advantage/value of having the “real?”
What are differences in using new media to either approximate or take it deeper/further than real objects can?
How can design invite different forms of bodily engagement with and around objects (e.g. multisensory exploration, whole-body immersion, and multimodal expression such as gesture)? What learning outcomes result from these bodily engagements?

6. Connecting learning and organizational change in museums

What kind of organizations are Natural History Museums and how do they learn and organize to support learning? Connections between learning theory and institutional theory would be helpful here. How much homo vs. heterogeneity is there currently in the organization of NHMs?
How do we partner with other organizations in ways that increase the coherence and richness of the learning ecology for learners who move between our settings? How do we partner in ways that increase connectivity and motivate us to keep working once the funding is over?
Who are our museums organized to serve? What characteristics indicate this kind of organization? What organizational structures are needed to reach a broader audience?
What kinds of institutional structures stand in the way of or facilitate the uptake of new practices and concepts?