Executive Summary

Children’s museums and science centers continually strive to develop exhibits that appeal to a wide variety of audiences, but especially families with young children since these are their primary audiences.  Styles of exhibit design have changed over time from static, didactic approaches of the past to hands-on, interactive exhibits that encourage family interaction and learning.   Exhibit evaluation has played a key role in in this evolution.  Many museums now engage in extensive evaluation of exhibit prototypes to ensure that the final exhibits are engaging and effective in promoting the desired learning outcomes, such as family learning.  The project described herein is part of a larger effort to develop in-house capabilities in evaluation and exhibit design at a consortium of New England museums that includes the EcoTarium (Worcester, MA), the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine (Portland, ME), the Discovery Museum (Acton, MA), and ECHO (Burlington, VT).  We worked closely with staff at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine (CMTM) and EcoTarium.

 

Methodology

Our primary goal was to create a prototype robotic arm exhibit that meets the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine’s (CMTM) learning objectives and promotes children’s interest in engineering. To achieve our goal, we developed five project objectives: (1) to clarify CMTM’s desired learning outcomes for the robot arm exhibit, (2) to develop the design criteria that will ensure the prototype exhibit promotes the desired learning outcomes and meets the other design objectives, such as safety and accessibility, (3) to create a series of prototypes based on the design criteria, (4) to test, evaluate, and refine the prototypes, and (5) to develop recommendations for development and evaluation of future similar exhibits.

We began with a basic ‘robotic’ arm that had been developed at CMTM through several prior stages of prototyping.  We conducted several rounds of prototyping evaluation at the EcoTarium and CMTM to refine the design to promote active prolonged engagement (APE) and encourage family learning.  We used establish design criteria, such as those developed by the Philadelphia Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC), to guide the design and evaluation process (Borun, 1998).  We also consulted regularly with staff at CMTM and the EcoTarium to ensure that the prototype exhibit was meeting the desired learning outcomes.

 

Findings

The findings from each round of prototyping helped us to make the interface more user-friendly. The first complication we faced was the movement of the arm. The initial movement was jerky and made it difficult for the visitor to use exhibit. This also prevented prolonged engagement which was our goal. With the help of flow control valves, the movement became much easier to control and the learning outcomes became more transparent. Once the arm was easier to control, it promoted prolonged engagement by providing the user with an open-ended objective based goal.

We also found that the difficult nature of the arm’s operation was a perfect attribute to promote parental and peer involvement. Operational skills also drastically increased over time and once children had a mastery of the movement they had no problem walking other visitors through the process. With the introduction of an objective based game, these outcomes increased, gave the exhibit direction, and expanded on the user to user interaction.

Our final major finding was that we would need to develop displays to assist with the exhibits use. These signs provided visual instruction as to the function of each component of the user interface. Additional displays explained to the parents the scientific concepts at work which they could them explain to their children.

 

Conclusions and Recommendations

From this prototyping we learned much about the exhibit design and evaluation processes. As for these evaluation methods, we found that design criteria and desired learning outcomes are essential to establish at the beginning of the design process. These learning outcomes must not be too specific however, because it is very difficult to design to a specific learning outcome due to the different perceptions users may have of the exhibit. We also found that prototyping on the floor must occur as soon as possible since it is an invaluable way to gain essential information directly from museum visitors. Through this prototyping, we found that gradually improving the exhibit’s design proved easier to analyze and determine which changes were useful. Debriefing and analyzing the prototyping session as a whole after the fact proved useful for connecting the group’s thoughts and observations of the day.

Our recommendations moving forward with our specific exhibit would be to first fully enclose the exhibit to prevent children from reaching around. We would also recommend further developing the diagrams and displays to assist the users in their experience. Finally we recommend creating ways to make the technology more apparent whether it is through magnetic tic-tac-toe pieces or making the airflow direction apparent. As a sum of our project, the CMTM has a working prototype that engages visitors, promotes family learning, and connects them to engineering concepts.