Archive for September 3rd, 2013

September 3, 2013

Increasing Scientific Literacy Through Museum Research

by Melissa Harding


Every day, scientific research is being done on any number of topics. A quick browse through PLOS One, a peer-reviewed, open-access online journal for scientific papers of all kinds, reveals topics such as: molecular threading, NaOH debittering, and elevated levels of carbon monoxide in mouse exhalations. While these are surely important topics to medicine, agriculture and other fields of study, they don’t mean very much to the average person. In fact, much of the research that goes on in science often does not make it into the popular culture; sometimes this work is very specialized, sometimes it is perceived as irrelevant, or sometimes it is difficult to understand. This results in a poor understanding of what a scientist is and does. Luckily, there are many researchers who realize this and are trying to break down the barriers between scientists and the public. The Living Laboratory, an educational, on-site research program developed at the Museum of Science, Boston, is one such organization.

In the Living Lab model, scientists in the fields of child developmental and psychological research conduct their studies at local museums, recruiting study participants from museum visitors. These researchers then work with museum educators to communicate  their work to visitors through innovative activities and one-on-one interactions with the researchers themselves. These studies occur on the museum floor, in plain view of visitors, allowing them to be drawn in to the process. Participants and viewers alike learn how science is applicable to their own lives, how research is conducted, what scientists look and act like and how to answer tough questions using the scientific method.  Studies on the effectiveness of this approach have found that watching children participate in research studies increases adult awareness of child development as a science and that one-on-one conversations between adults and scientists increase adult understanding of the scientific process and their overall scientific literacy.

TIMG_0157he Living Laboratory has been so successful that it has spawned the National Living Lab Initiative. This program has created “hubs” in regions across the country to connect museums and researchers together. In addition to The Museum of Science, Boston, the Maryland Science Center, the Madison Children’s Museum and the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry act as hub leaders, helping other museums to adopt a similar model.

At Phipps, we are working with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Cognitive Development Lab to provide a museum setting for their work.  CMU’s Cognitive Development Lab is interested in gaining a better understanding of “how children generalize knowledge they have to new situations, how children acquire language, what role language plays in knowledge generalization, how children maintain focused attention, and what role focused attention plays in acquisition of new knowledge.” They do this playing games with their subjects that are designed to take show researchers how children think and how their thinking changes with development.

Two of the games that they are currently playing with our visitors are the “Help Zippo” game and the “Perceptual Similarity” game. The first, Help Zippo, investigates how children organize plants and animals based on the relationships between them. Children are given cards with black and white pictures of plants and animals and asked to sort them onto a game board four different times. Each time, researchers are looking to see how they are grouped and whether children can group the pictures in multiple ways. The Perceptual Similarity game tests the degree to which children can use their knowledge of how objects are categorized in a situation in which they are presented with conflicting information. Children are shown a set of three pictures, two of which are similar and one of which is close, but slight different (e.g. a lemon, a lemon wedge and a yellow tennis ball). Children are told that the similar objects go together and asked to pick which two match based on physical similarity. Both of these games test category-based reasoning, but the Cognitive Development Lab also tests other topics, such as the development of focused attention during pre-school years and the effect of classroom visual environment on allocating attention and learning.

IMG_0147The games that the Cognitive Development Lab plays with children are different each time, based on the different studies that are being run. Phipps is not the only source of study participants, so the study is conducted in a secluded, quiet spot where variables like noise and stimulation can be controlled. While they watch their child participate, parents are given information on the study itself to help them understand more about the research question being investigated. This is a wonderful way for parents and children to engage with the research and, as the research questions often change quickly, there are many eager return customers.

Having researchers working in public settings, like museums and libraries, is a great way to involve families in the scientific process. Through participation in studies and interaction with scientists, visitors, researchers and museums can all benefit!

If you are a museum professional and would like to learn more about a Living Lab hub near you, check out the National Living Lab Initiative.

To learn more about the research being conducted by CMU’s Child Development Lab, check out their great website; there is also information for parents if you are local to Pittsburgh and would like to participate.

The above photos of the CMU Cognitive Development Lab team were taken by our photography intern, Cory Doman.


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