Science Museums Matter! Qualitative Study on Factors Fostering Scientific Interest

What makes people love science? How do individuals develop and maintain interest in STEM disciplines? Given my research focus on informal learning and the role of motivation and interest in the scope of connected learning, I am constantly scanning publications that deal with questions like this, and sometimes, I find a gem that worth sharing with a broader audience, as is the case with the 2018 article ‘The contribution of science-rich resources to public science interest’.

The study investigates adults’ current and previous informal learning experiences and the relations to the interest in science. It is a qualitative study done in 2017, and it involved about 14,000 participants and 3,001 effective data from 3 metropolitan areas of the United States, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Philadelphia. The participants were given a phone survey that contains 30 likert-scale or open-ended questions in regard to the values and cognitive predispositions, and the sources they receive scientific information. This self-reported data was analyzed in the way how each source relates to the predisposition. Let’s ignore the sample size (even though it’s not small) and the analysis method for now, and fast forward to the interesting results the study provides.

The 5 factors that this study identifies that are significantly associated with the science interests are 1) early adolescent experiences visiting a science center, 2) early adolescent experiences watching science-related television, 3) adult visits to a science center, 4) adult reading books and magazines about science, and 5) adult using the internet to learn more about science. There is a distinct difference in influential factors between adolescence period and adulthood. At an early age, watching science-related TV significantly predicted adult current science interest values and predispositions. Whereas, when people grow older, rather than watching science-related TV programs, reading books and magazines about science, and using the internet to learn about science significantly related to adult science interest values and predispositions.

In other words, science-related television is more important in terms of contributing to the interest early in life, and reading books and magazines and using interest are more effective later in life. The reasons underlying the difference could be first, there was limited access to the internet 10-15 years ago when the participants were children; and second, watching TV was in general more enjoyable than reading for kids and might have become a pastime for adults.

Interestingly, the learning experience of visiting science centers in both adolescence and adulthood is characterized as a significant predictor of the interest in science. This makes sense, because according to Hidi and Renninger (2006) interest development occurs in a similar fashion in in-school and out-of-school learning environments, and in young children and adults.

I searched the science centers (California Science Center, Arizona Science Center, and the Franklin Institute) that this survey involved. They all include hands-on activities and interactive exhibitions without exception. Recalling my own museum experiences as a child, I do find the exhibition or activity that I could participate was more memorable. For example, I remember there was device illustrating bird’s flying mechanism. I could sit in the center of the device and control the huge feathers on my sides like a simplified bird. The change of the angle and the shape of feathers according to the wind direction allowed me to “fly” faster or more slowly. Although the hands-on and interactive activities may be able to increase the engagement of adults’ informal learning experiences and the temporary interest in the certain piece of knowledge, I believe that the long-term interest in science was initiated and developed in the early age.

In my personal experience, visiting science centers as an adult allowed me to maintain and further increase interest in a scientific topic, yet it could hardly generate it.Looking at the data from Falk et al., there could be another explanation of this connection between visiting science centers in adulthood and the predisposition to science, the frequent visits. The adult might be a parent or a teacher and wants or needs to take kids to the museum often, and therefore he/she gradually becomes interested in science himself/herself. But, this should not be the majority of the sample.

Do you have any memorable museum visit? Does it make you love science? Comment below!


Falk, J. H., Pattison, S., Meier, D., Bibas, D., & Livingston, K. (2018). The contribution of science‐rich resources to public science interest. Journal of Research in Science Teaching55(3), 422-445.

Suzanne Hidi & K. Ann Renninger (2006) The Four-Phase Model of Interest Development, Educational Psychologist, 41:2, 111-127, DOI: 10.1207/s15326985ep4102_4

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