Facilitating Group Scientific Inquiry Using Science Museum Exhibits

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

Many science centers invite exploration of the physical world with the implicit assumption that visitors have the skills in basic scientific inquiry to engage with stand-alone exhibits without facilitation by museum staff. In reality, many visitors do not employ these basic skills and lack the confidence to interact fully with exhibits. We are studying whether a program facilitated by science center educator can help improve inquiry behaviors for family and field trip groups.


The Exploratorium, located in San Francisco, is a museum of science, art, and human perception founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer. The Exploratorium's mission is to create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is comparative, and is designed to generate evidence which is causal [experimental]. There were two treatment and two control conditions. Both treatment conditions involved teaching groups Inquiry Games which focused on two key inquiry skills that could be applied at any exhibit; one Inquiry Game used a structured, collaborative format for teaching the skills while the other used a spontaneous, individualized format. The Pure Control condition simply asks groups to use the exhibits as they normally would, without intervention of an educator. In the Exhibit Tour Control, an educator offers groups a brief tour of the exhibits which focuses on the exhibits’ underlying science and design history; the educator does not teach the groups anything about inquiry.

This project collects original data using observation (videography), survey research (paper and pencil self-completion questionnaire), and structured interviewer-administered questionnaire (face-to-face and telephone). Coding of the video included assessing the following at both a pre-test and a post-test exhibit: (a) Time groups spent, (b) Frequency and duration of utterances indicating use of the two skills taught in the Inquiry Games (Propose an Action and Interpret Results), (c) Coherence of groups’ investigations, (d) Collaboration and degree to which group members built on each others’ interpretations. The post-test interview assessed group members’ attitudes toward the Inquiry Game or Exhibit Tour. The follow-up interview gathered data on group members’ experiences after they left the research lab, both on the museum exhibit floor and outside the museum.

Coding schemes were created for all coding. Coding of the audio/video data used specialized software for that purpose; multiple coders were theory-blind and were checked for inter-rater reliability. Coding of transcripts of post-interviews and follow-up interviews employed spreadsheet software; interview responses were double-coded.


In our analysis of family group data, one of the treatment groups showed significant improvement in time spent at exhibits, coherence of investigation, frequency of interpreting results of investigations, and collaborative explanation building as compared to the control groups as well as to the other treatment condition. The greatest gains came in families that learned the more structured, collaborative Inquiry Game (called Juicy Question). Participants in all conditions enjoyed their experience, varied in what they liked and disliked, and reported applying what they had learned at new exhibits.

Results from the field trip group data were similar to those found with family groups. Field trip groups that learned the inquiry games significantly outperformed the control groups in the duration and quality of several inquiry skills when using a novel exhibit, with effect sizes ranging from 0.3σ to 0.8σ.  As before, the highest gains came from the Inquiry Game which was structured and collaborative (Juicy Question), rather than spontaneous and individualized. Students and chaperones in all conditions reported enjoying the experience.

Qualitative analysis of both family and field trip groups suggested that the collaborative inquiry game was superior because it required all family members to participate, work together and explicitly articulate their interpretations.

Publications & Presentations: 


Gutwill, J. P., & Allen, S. (2010). Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits: Getting Visitors to Ask Juicy Questions. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Peer Reviewed Journal Articles:

Gutwill, J. P., & Allen, S. (in press). Deepening students’ scientific inquiry skills during a science museum field trip. Journal of the Learning Sciences.

Gutwill, J. P., & Allen, S. (2010). Facilitating Family Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits. Science Education, 94(4), 710-742.

Allen, S., & Gutwill, J. P. (2009). Creating a program to deepen family inquiry at interactive science exhibits. Curator, 52(3), 289-306.