Exploring the Educational Value of Museums on its Young Visitors

Growing up near the D.C. metropolitan area, my school field trips included visits to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Marian Koshland Science Museum, and the NASA Goddard. I was always amazed by the exhibits, from the Cold War satellites towering above me or peering into telescopes in the space communications exhibit. While these field trips were a treat, were they simply a fun day-off, or did they actually serve an educational purpose? Many science museums today prioritize fun over knowledge, simplifying scientific concepts for entertainment. With 181 science centers around the world reporting 67 million visits each in 2016, it is imperative for these knowledge powerhouses to find the perfect combination of education and entertainment in order for the public to reap the benefits of its valuable resources (ASTC, 2017). 

One of the main purposes of museums is to serve as learning places for informal education outside of a school setting. The New York Hall of Science located in Queens, New York, has created immersive and innovative exhibits for students (Kaplan). Their primary focus m is collaborating with teachers to incorporate material students learn in the museum within the school curriculum, and vice versa. For example, when Simon Baruch Middle School teacher Amanda Solarsh brought her class to NYSCI, her students were tasked with designing a wooden dowel-made structure to protect ten citizens from natural disasters (Kaplan, 2018). She later incorporated the activity into the classroom and reconfigured the lesson to fit within the “Scaling Structures” unit (Kaplan, 2018). Solarsh was so invigorated by NYSCI’s out-of-the-box thinking, that she challenged her class to invent a utensil that combated temperature difficulties, such as thermometer spoons and temperature color-changing cups (Kaplan, 2018). Another way museums have been trying to increase engagement is through technology and multi-user-friendly interfaces. The Science Museum in London introduced a game called “Energy Shutdown” where visitors have to work together to retain the energy in a city while being struck by various catastrophes such as rescuing the city engineer from an accident (Heath, 2008). While co-participation is a great way to have visitors involved with each other and the exhibit, the gaming aspect makes the museum seem more like an amusement park rather than a learning institution. Visitors, especially young children, would be too immersed in the game itself to even be attentive to the science behind what they’re doing with the joystick. 

Figure 1. Students participating in a planetarium demonstration

While museums such as NYSCI are making concerted efforts to foster an educational and exciting experience for their visitors, many institutions are aiming for their museums to focus on only the fun aspects. As a result, the educational value of the museum is compromised for the enjoyment of their visitor. As visitors choose the exhibits they want to go view, they usually gravitate toward an exhibit they have some prior knowledge of, meaning they lose the opportunity to learn anything new (Falk, 2005). To ensure visitors are getting the most from their trip, museums can host more “citizen science” projects, where the public can firsthand immerse themselves in scientific discovery. Because citizen science involved both scientists and nonscientists, it also offers an opportunity to bring diversity and other perspectives into scientific research, benefitting both science learning and research missions. The NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh launched an initiative called the “Belly Button BioDiversity” in January of 2011 which investigated questions regarding the diversity of microbes in our belly buttons. So many people participated in the study to learn about their belly buttons, that they had to stop sample collection due to the large abundance. Through this extra step of engagement, visitors are able to get involved with science on an even closer level, providing them a chance to perform science (Jarreau, 2016). 

Figure 2. Belly button swab “citizen-science” project to study the biodiversity of species in belly buttons.

Another powerhouse for citizen science is the Natural History Museum in London, which in 2017, had already successfully led fifteen citizen science projects. In June of 2010, the NHM hosted a  24-hour “BioBlitz” that attracted over 8,000 people who distinguished 700 organisms, including a rare beetle. Their work ended up helping the Alexandra Palace Park earn a status as a local nature reserve to conserve rare grassland. Then from 2009 to 2016, NHM embarked on yet another citizen science project called the “Decoding Nature” project which grouped together researchers and children of all ages to identify species relationships using DNA barcoding (Eylott, 2017). After surveying 200 of the participants, 95% of them stated that the activity improved their DNA analysis and other DNA knowledge.  

Museums should aim to strike this balance, and create more initiatives for engaging education that focus on improving the knowledge of the public, especially young children. Although constraints such as time, staff, allocation of resources, and lack of flexibility arise, by taking part in citizen science projects, museum visitors are able to be directly involved with scientific research, allowing them to firsthand see their work (Roche, 2020). Integrating citizen science early is vital to transforming science education and advocates for learning and awareness of the scientific world that we live in. With this, we will be able to revamp curriculums to cultivate interest and participation in scientific exploration and learning.

Edited by Bushra Rahman


Association of Science-Technology Centers. (2017). Science Center Statistics. http://www.astc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/ASTC_SCStats-2016.pdf

Eylott, M. C. (2017, January 20). Conservation benefits of museum-led citizen science demonstrated. Natural History Museum. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2017/january/conservation-benefits-of-museum-led-citizen-science.html

Falk, John H., & Storksdieck, Martin. (2005). Learning science from museums. História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos, 12(Suppl. ), 117-143. https://doi.org/10.1590/S0104-59702005000400007

Heath, C., & Lehn, D. (2008). Configuring ‘Interactivity’: Enhancing Engagement in Science Centres and Museums. Social Studies of Science, 38(1), 63-91. Retrieved March 6, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25474565

Jarreau, P. (2016, July 2). Science museums should aim beyond education, to citizen science. FromTheLabBench.http://www.fromthelabbench.com/from-the-lab-bench-science-blog/science-museums-should-aim-beyond-education-to-citizen-science

Kaplan, M. (2018, December 27). What Schools Can Learn From a Science Museum That Makes Learning Irresistible for Kids. EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-07-12-what-schools-can-learn-from-a-science-museum-that-makes-learning-irresistible-for-kids

Roche, J., Bell, L., Galvão, C., Golumbic, Y., Kloetzer, L., Knoben, N., Laakso, M., Mannion, G., Massetti, L., Mauchline, A., Pata, K., Ruck, A., Taraba, P., & Winter, S. (2020, December 2). Citizen Science, Education, and Learning: Challenges and Opportunities. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsoc.2020.613814/full

Image References

Dunn, R., & Dunn, R. (2013, November 25). The Belly Buttons Will be Revealed, Slowly. Your 

Wild Life. http://yourwildlife.org/2013/11/the-belly-buttons-will-be-revealed-slowly/

Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science / Grimshaw Architects

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