Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Theory, Policy, and Practice

Document Type



Informal science education centers, including aquariums, are often tasked with educating the general public on conservation issues, natural environments, and general science topics. The public tends to see these centers as entertaining leisure destinations in which they have the opportunity to learn something about the presented information. It is widely accepted that learning in informal environments is shaped by the learner’s motivations, interests, background knowledge, and social interactions. However, these impacting factors are rarely studied in depth, particularly across different types of visitors. This qualitative case study project integrates original research on visitor interests, motivations, and self-reported learning into the design of an educational material that provides visitors with guidance but still aligns with the free-choice nature of the aquarium. To determine visitor motivations, interests, and self-reported learning, the researcher interviewed 122 visitors to an aquarium; these visitors encompassed a variety of group types. Information from this phase was used to create two novel, unique sets of educational materials—the Visitors’ Interpersonal (VIP) Discussion Guides—that contained open-ended questions designed to spark science-based conversations among family groups with elementary school-aged children (n=6) and social groups of college-aged young adults (n=7). Interviews, observations, and document analyses allowed the researcher to assess the impact of VIP Discussion Guides use on the group’s visit experience and science-based conversations. Use of the VIP Discussion Guides increased the number and depth of science-based conversations among family groups with elementary school-aged children as well as among social groups of college-aged young adults. Visitors reported greater engagement in conversations and increased learning due to use of the VIP Discussion Guides. Additionally, all participating visitors stated that they enjoyed using the VIP Discussion Guides and would be interested in using a similar guide in the future. The results from qualitative studies typically do not generalize to different situations, but the methods, VIP Discussion Guides, and conclusions from this research could provide a blue-print for other institutions seeking to design educational materials to increase science-based conversations among their own visitors.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Blanchard, Pamela



Included in

Education Commons