Investigating the impact of prior knowledge and interest on aquarium visitor learning



Most free-choice science learning institutions, in particular science centers, zoos, aquariums, and natural history museums, define themselves as educational institutions. However, to what extent, and for which visitors, do these free-choice learning settings accomplish their educational mission? Answering this question has proven challenging, in large part because of the inherent variability of visitors to such settings. We hypothesize that the challenges of measuring free-choice science learning might be diminished if it were possible to pool populations during analysis in ways that reduced this variability. Specifically, we propose grouping learners according to their entering understanding and attitudes, using qualitative categories such as minimal, moderate, and extensive. In this article, we use data collected at the National Aquarium in Baltimore to determine whether grouping makes it possible to discern more readily the nature of changes in aquarium visitors' conservation knowledge and attitudes. Although analysis revealed that there were significant changes in both conservation knowledge and attitudes, entry to exit, for all 100 visitors studied, a more detailed analysis revealed that gains were not evenly distributed across all visitors. The results support the hypothesis that the grouping of learners into minimal, moderate, and extensive conservation knowledge and attitude categories enabled a more fine-grained and accurate understanding of changes in aquarium visitor's conservation learning. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 40: 163–176, 2003