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Visitor StudiesTechnology

How Things Work
Ann Arbor Hands -On Museum
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Study conducted by Adrienne C. Gelpi and Scott G. Paris, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
October-March 1994

Purpose and methods:
This study examined children's understanding of several common machines - a toaster, camera, remote control, and hydraulic brake - as part of planning for a children's exhibition on how things work. Because the exhibition, intended for children as young as four years of age, would include common machines from the home, car, and neighborhood, the study was designed to determine whether the objects were familiar to children of different ages; what children knew about the operation of several common machines; and whether their understanding could be enhanced with brief explanations. Individual interviews were conducted with preschool and 3rd-grade children as they interacted with and handled objects or prototypes of objects. They were asked initial questions, provided a brief explanation about the object's functioning, then asked some follow-up questions.

Sample size:
21 preschool children (mean age 5 years, 3 months) 24 3rd-grade children (mean age 8 years, 11 months)

Major findings:
Both preschool and 3rd-grade children were familiar with the objects and, with the exception of the hydraulic brake, said they'd used them. For the most part, they knew the objects' purposes but had limited knowledge about their functional mechanisms and operations. Although children recognized the objects, they did not have complex knowledge of how they worked. They were equally familiar with the brake and toaster, but older children were more familiar with the remote control than younger children; among preschoolers, girls were more familiar with cameras, and among 3rd graders, boys expressed more familiarity with cameras than girls.

Follow-up questions revealed that children at both age levels learned and recalled important information about each machine from the explanations. Although the 3rd graders exhibited enhanced knowledge following the brief explanations more frequently than the preschoolers, including increases in causal understanding, even the younger children were able to report information from the explanations and in some cases showed higher levels of causal understanding. The study demonstrated that young children have limited understanding about the functional mechanisms of simple machines, but their understanding can be improved with brief explanations. Researchers also concluded that the objects under consideration for inclusion in the exhibition would provide a familiar context for presenting and extending children's understanding of underlying scientific concepts.

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Other studies about Technology:

Creative World
California Science Center
Los Angeles, California
Study conducted by John Falk, Institute for Learning Innovation, Annapolis, Maryland
May - June 1994

Purpose: To investigate visitors' preconceptions, attitudes, and levels of knowledge about general technology, the relationship between science and technology, and knowledge and interest levels related to specific areas of technology being considered for one of four areas in new science center

Methods: Semi-structured interviews

Findings: Visitors were positive about technology and its uses; for most, the word conjured up products such as cars and computers. Few understood the relationship between science and technology.

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Infomachines
St. Louis Science Center
St. Louis, Missouri
1996
Study conducted by staff evaluators Carey Tisdal and Mike Wissinger

Purpose: To support the redesign of the Infomachines gallery by developing a framework for understanding non-expert conceptions of information technology

Methods: 24 structured, 15-minute interviews, which included drawing a cognitive map

Findings: Frameworks used by computer researchers and engineers appeared to be foreign to the ways both adults and children think about information technology. Visitors' knowledge was structured around practical activities or tasks for which the technology can be used. Visitor knowledge also reflected the settings in which it was developed - for children, school and home; and for adults, school, home, work, and areas of human endeavor such as medicine, communications, entertainment, business, and industry. Feelings about technology were much less awe-inspiring, apocalyptic, and intense than conjectured by the design team. Gender differences were not found.

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Infomachines/Cyberville
St. Louis Science Center
St. Louis, Missouri
1996- 97
Study conducted by Carey Tisdal

Purpose: To provide information for gallery redesign, with a primary focus on assessing change in visitor access to, usage of, and expertise and interest in personal computers; secondary focus was to compare St. Louis Science Center visitors to the general U.S. population.

Methods: Two 5-minute oral exit surveys of visitors over 18 years of age were conducted in April-May 1996 and May 1997. In 1996, 236 visitors were interviewed, and in 1997, 214 visitors were interviewed.

Findings: Deep divisions by income and race in PC ownership and Internet access found among the general population were found to a lesser degree among SLSC visitors, suggesting that SLSC is attracting visitors with relatively higher levels of access to and experience with PCs among all groups. Nevertheless, about 40 percent of those interviewed did not own PCs. People appeared to want hands -on contact with technology, and were particularly interested in using and finding out what is new. Significantly higher ratings on these topics in 1997 suggested a growing interest in these topics. Older visitors were much less interested in computer topics overall.

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Life Technology
The Tech Museum of Innovation
San Jose, California
Study conducted by John Falk and David Anderson, Institute for Learning Innovation, Annapolis, Maryland
June - August 1996

Purpose: To examine visitor knowledge, interest, and attitudes towards various domains of research and technology proposed for inclusion in new gallery

Methods: Semi-structured interviews both inside and outside of the museum

Findings: People were generally aware of the impact of technology on diagnosis and treatment of disease and illness. They were aware of ultrasound, but not of other technologies such as arthroscopic surgery. Nearly half were unable to give an adequate explanation of DNA. More than 40 percent expressed concerns about genetic engineering, though overall only a fifth said they had concerns about technology.

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Transportation, Shelter, and Communication
California Science Center
Los Angeles, California
Study conducted by John Falk, Institute for Learning Innovation, Annapolis, Maryland
August 1994

Purpose: To provide insights into visitors' attitudes toward three areas of technology being considered for the Creative World exhibition area - transportation, shelter, and communication - to aid in selecting specific themes and images

Methods: Focused interviews

Findings: Visitors expressed strong preferences for subject matter and images within each topic area; for exhibit themes dealing with earthquakes and impacts on structures; and for information about pagers, faxes, and phones. Written descriptions evoked few gender-related differences; differences were marked when people were presented with images.

 

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