Visitors’ Interactions with Distributed Scaffolds in Exhibits

This project started during my dissertation and continues to be a major focus of my research. My dissertation examined how families provided support to each other as they interacted with a pop-up program about compost hosted in two museums. I first examined how families’ supportive strategies reflected the scaffolding functions described by Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976). I then examined which materials included in the program (as embedded scaffolds) were most helpful to families as they provided support. I am currently in the process of extending my earlier work for further publication.

In general, I am curious how people engage with the same activity across formal and informal settings. For example, how might families in a museum use a simulation about compost, and how does their use differ from students’ use in classrooms? My goal is to understand how the kind of setting and context influence how people interact with various scaffolds while learning.

Some key questions I have in this line of research are:

  • What kinds of learning goals do families have when they visit a museum?
  • If families have multiple goals, are these goals competing or complementary?
  • What does learning look like in museums, from a learning sciences perspective?
  • Do families expect to help each other learn?
  • How do families expect to collaborate in museums? What kind of roles and/or hierarchies emerge during families’ interactions?

These are long-term research questions that can help me to better understand how visitors, and especially families, with varying background knowledge and expectations collaborate in any given setting. I’m particularly interested in what drives “spontaneous” learning in museum environments. Families may visit a museum not expecting to learn (or to learn anything in depth), but from years of informal observations, it seems that families seem to learn more from museums than they expected. I look forward to identifying museum-specific strategies for supporting learners.