At the ScienceOnline conference earlier this month, I was bemoaning the dearth of literature evaluating the impact of science outreach activities. Luckily, Mun Keat Looi was part of this conversation, and he steered me to a 2012 paper he thought I’d find interesting. He was right.
The paper, “Assessing Public Engagement with Science in a University Primate Research Centre in a National Zoo,” was published in April 2012 by PLOS ONE. The authors note in the opening lines of their abstract that funding bodies are increasingly urging scientists to engage in public outreach and that it is important to be able to quantify the impact of these outreach efforts, “whose effects are more often assumed than demonstrated.” This is an argument I’ve made many times (and will be making again in a forthcoming post).
The authors also write that “a surprisingly small literature of such studies exists,” further endearing them to me. (I acknowledge that this is confirmation bias at work. They seem to agree with me; therefore, I think they are smart.)
The study itself is pretty straightforward. In 2009, and again in 2010, the researchers evaluated how much time visitors spent in the Living Links to Human Evolution Research Centre at the Edinburgh Zoo and the extent to which those visitors interacted with informational materials in the Living Links facility. Between the 2009 and 2010 assessments, the Living Links facility was modified to incorporate outreach materials, including additional information boards, interactive activities and computer displays.
Guess what? The addition of outreach materials had an impact.
In 2009, visitors spent an average (mean) of 9 minutes and 46 seconds in Living Links. In 2010, after the new outreach elements were in place, visitors spent an average (mean) of 12 minutes and 13 seconds in Living Links. But the real impact may be larger than that.
In both 2009 and 2010, approximately one-third of visitors did not interact with any of the outreach materials. The paper notes: “If we exclude visitors who did not engage with materials from the analysis, the time spent (in seconds) in engagement did increase significantly, tripling between 2009 and 2010. . . . These results suggest that what changed between 2009 and 2010 was that the two thirds of visitors prone to some level of engagement showed on average longer dwell times [interacting with the materials], indicating higher levels of interest in the materials added between years.”
In short, the paper states, “people engaged for longer when they were better informed.”
But I still had a lot of questions about the impact of the outreach materials. For example, did they improve visitor understanding of the scientific concepts behind the research? But, honestly, that’s just nitpicking. And somebody would do that study soon, right? In fact, someone already did.
There Is a Second Paper!
Shortly after reading the first paper, and expressing my excitement on Twitter, @CogSciLibrarian sent me a link to a second PLOS ONE paper published in September 2012. The second paper assesses the extent to which visitors engaged with, and learned from, outreach efforts in 2011 at the Macaque Study Centre in Marwell Wildlife Zoological Park in the UK.
The paper, “Evidence of Public Engagement with Science: Visitor Learning at a Zoo-Housed Primate Research Centre,” is fairly brief (and definitely worth a read), but I’ll mention a couple of the key findings.
First, zoo visitors were more likely to visit the centre and interact with outreach materials when a scientist was present. Simply showing a scientist at work makes people more willing to learn about science. Researcher involvement matters.
Second, zoo visitors reported that they learned more when scientists were present. And, because they were more likely to interact with outreach materials (like informative signs), the visitors are probably right. That’s because the study found that “zoo visitors also demonstrated an increase in knowledge and understanding if they interacted with information signage relating to specific topics relevant to the scientific research.”
In short, the study shows that outreach efforts resulted in non-scientists being more likely to engage with scientific material, and to actually learn something.
No two studies are going to turn science outreach skeptics into science outreach enthusiasts. I co-moderated two sessions on facilitating science outreach at ScienceOnline, and neither of these studies was even mentioned. But these studies are excellent first steps in assessing the impact of outreach efforts associated with living labs and zoos in general. I hope these researchers continue their efforts to quantify and analyze their outreach, and I’ll certainly want to read about it if they do.
Hopefully, other researchers — at zoos and elsewhere — will follow their lead.