We can begin by contemplating the findings of Niels Bonderup Dohn at the University of Aarhus in Copenhagen, Denmark. In Situational Interest of High School Students Who Visit an Aquarium, he investigated the factors triggering situational interest during a field trip to a local aquarium. He created a systematic approach of documenting interest because evaluations of visitor interest in a museum setting is usually anecdotal. As Dohn (2011) points out, teachers and docents may have a sense about how they can get their audience interested in a subject, but there aren’t data supporting the accuracy of their hunches and observations. Because the specific factors generating interest in museum settings have not been well documented, he set out to observe high school students as they learned about local marine life during a class field trip. Dohn (2011) asked a simple research question: How is the situational interest of students triggered during a field trip to an aquarium?
To find out which elements of the museum experience generated student interest in the ocean, Dohn (2011) did more than just follow sixteen 12th-grade students around the aquarium. His research began in the classroom eight weeks before students visited the aquarium. He observed, interviewed, and videotaped students for ten weeks. He collected data in three phases. In Phase 1, he observed the lectures students received in preparation for their visit to the aquarium. The second phase of data collection occurred during the field trip to the aquarium. Data collected in Phase 3, occurred in the classroom and consisted of follow-up interviews with students and their teacher.
Dohn (2011) collected data by conducting informal conversational interviews with students, videotaping students in the classroom and at the aquarium, conducting formal interviews with students, interviewing the classroom teacher, and by reading student reports about their ten-week experience learning about ecology, population biology, and the ecology of the Kerteminde fjord.
To analyze the wealth of qualitative data he collected, Dohn (2011) conducted a chronological review the the data and then applied codes to the transcripts of his conversations with students to help him identify the factors, as stated by the students themselves, generating situational interest during their visit to the aquarium.
The following “triggers” (Dohn, 2011) were identified as factors generating situational interest in students:
- Social Involvement – Being in a group, belonging to a community
- Hands-on Activities – Handling objects provided for concrete learning
- Surprise – Learning the unexpected, having flash moments of insight
- Novelty – Learning something new, participating in unique activities
- Knowledge Acquisition – Building upon prior knowledge
Early interviews with students indicate students thought the subject of ecology was “boring” and “abstract” (Dohn, 2011). Student opinions about ecology changed after visiting the aquarium. All students said ecology was more interesting to them after the class field trip and their positive feelings about ecology and the ocean lingered for at least a couple weeks after their aquarium visit. It is not know if these feelings lasted longer or motivated students to learn more about the ocean on their own. Dohn (2011) did not investigate student interest after Week 10.
Dohn (2011) states his findings may not be applicable in all situations and cites his small sample size and the unique snorkeling opportunities at the aquarium as some reasons. He acknowledges that students visiting an aquarium without a snorkeling option may have fewer positive things to say about their experience. Nonetheless, Dohn’s investigation into factors triggering interest in students offers insight useful to not only museum docents and staff, but to informal science educators and all of us who strive to share information with the public.
How can botanical artists use this information to generate interest in plants?
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Niels Bonderup Dohn. 2011. Situational interest of high school students who visit an aquarium. Science Education 95(2): 337–357. Web. 4 April 2011. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.20425/abstract>