Informal STEM Institutions (ISIs) like hands-on science centers, natural history museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and aquaria, are powerful but often under-acknowledged components of learners’ introduction to, and exploration of, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content, practices, and careers. Within these institutions, exhibits have traditionally been the main vehicle for this STEM learning. As designed learning environments, exhibits have great power to shape the learning activities that might take place, but exhibit designers need to know more than just learning theory to design an effective exhibit.
Despite some overlap in the STEM content covered at each ISI, natural history museums, science centers, and zoos and aquaria have each evolved differently as institutions, and consequently foster different learning practices. An ecosystemic perspective permits educational designers to think strategically about how their designs will challenge and expand existing “ecosystem services,” a term ecologists use to refer to the useful functions an ecosystem provides for its denizens. In the ISI context, the learning practices made possible by different exhibit designs can be framed as ecosystem services provided by the ISI. Further extending this ecosystemic framing, learning practices are supported by “affordance networks,” a term given to the synergistic collection of “possibilities for action” provided by the various material, social, and cultural properties of a context (Barab & Roth, 2006).
Exhibit design can thus be thought of as a process of marshaling collections of affordances to support learning practices. Technological innovations by definition add new affordances to a learning environment, but designers must carefully consider how to align new affordances with existing affordance networks for the innovations to succeed and be adopted. This talk will describe how the different evolutionary histories of natural history museums, science centers, and zoos and aquaria have produced distinct affordance networks within these settings, which can be best illuminated by describing the three different archetypes for exhibits that emerged for these different types of ISIs: information delivery, phenomenological exploration, and affective spectacle exhibits. Implications for the future design of technological exhibits in light of these distinct situational affordance networks will be discussed.