Education research at Zoo highlights informal learning

Peter Kalenda, Ed.D. is a researcher and educator who recently completed his dissertation Creating Learning Experiences that Promote Informal Science Education: Designing Conservation Focused Interactive Zoo Exhibits through Action Research.

In this study, Peter asked the overall question: How can interactive exhibits be designed to promote socialization, engagement in science, and real-world conservation-related practices (RCPs) among zoo guests? He found answers through observation and data collection in the Rocky Coasts Gallery as well as direct interviews and follow-up calls with visitors.

The findings of Peter’s study–regarding the importance of signage placement, parental guidance in informal learning, and more–will be incorporated by the Education Department into future exhibit design. We had the chance to ask Peter a few questions to learn more about how he executed the project:

Why did you decide to focus on the Zoo for your dissertation work?

I grew up with a passion for studying animals. As an undergraduate, I majored in Biology with a focus in Zoo Biology and Animal Behavior. This eventually led me to becoming a science educator for the Rochester City School District. I wanted my dissertation research to focus on the informal science education that takes place at zoos and was fortunate that the zoo was looking for an Exhibit Redesign Facilitator at that time.


How can informal learning be just as powerful as formal learning?

Informal learning provides levels of engagement, personal connections and reflection that are often missed in formal learning scenarios. Informal learning approaches, whether in a school classroom or outside of school, provide students with meaningful opportunities to ask questions, explore, investigate and become an expert in an area they are passionate about.

How did you tackle the process of data collection? 

Most of my data collection was completed in the underwater viewing area of the Rocky Coasts. Zoo guests were welcomed to participate in the use of our new prototype exhibit. Nearly all guests who were asked participated! I then interviewed each family who agreed to participate before and after they used the exhibit, and also wrote down their conversations and movements within the exhibit.

Our redesign team analyzed this data using grounded theory qualitative data analysis techniques and collaboratively identified patterns and trends among the data that helped us to continually redesign and improve our prototype exhibit for guests.Picture2What surprised you most about the feedback you received?

I was impressed at how insightful our zoo guests were on exhibit design. Many of our guests made impressive suggestions on how to improve the exhibit, which helped to inspire out exhibit design shifts during each round of redesign.

What do you think was the best improvement that came about from your research?

The best improvement to the prototype exhibit was our shift in signage design for readability, which included improving the use of vocabulary, syntax and white space. As scientists and educators, we often wanted to supply our audience with many facts and images. This study helped to show that both children and adults were not reading signage with excessive images and text. However, once our signage was redesigned with a literacy expert, both adults and children were using our signage regularly. Adults were often scaffolding the learning of their children with these new signs, children were using this signage on their own, and many adult groups enjoyed the signage without children. During these same visits by guests, the other signs in the original exhibit that had colored backgrounds, excessive text, small text, difficult vocabulary and multiple pictures were repeatedly ignored.

These prototype exhibit signs and interactives were all temporary installations to help us collect data and inspire the future redesign of the Rocky Coasts. All of these signs and interactives have been donated to the Zoo Teens program, and they will be utilized by Anneke Nordmark and the Zoo Teen staff starting this summer.


Your research notes that “Most behaviors during engagement were breakthrough.” What is a breakthrough behavior and why is it important for higher-level learning?

The research by Chantel Barriault (1999) identifies three levels of behaviors that guests can display while engaging with an exhibit. Each level of behavior indicates a different “depth of learning.” These include initiation behaviors (using an interactive, watching others do an activity, talking to a docent), transition behaviors (repeating an activity, expressing an emotional response) and breakthrough behaviors (referring to past experiences, seeking out information, sharing information with others or using information from the exhibit). Guests engaging in breakthrough behaviors are the most engaged and leave with the greatest depth of understanding of new concepts. By the third iteration of our exhibit redesign, the majority of behaviors exhibited by guests were breakthrough behaviors. This was a significant shift from our first version of the prototype exhibit which only exhibited initiation behaviors. Reaching this depth of understanding is critical to helping our zoo meet the AZA’s ultimate goal of having zoo guests take conservation action at home and in their communities.


Thank you to Peter for contributing this fascinating research to the Zoo! You can read his full dissertation here.


Photos courtesy of Peter Kalenda


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