Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

James H. Wandersee


An important goal in science education reform is to create a scientifically literate society. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (1989b) has stated that for people to understand biology, they must first have personal experiences with it. There are severe limitations on the types of firsthand biology experiences available in the classroom. Informal learning institutions, however, are not limited by these constraints. Visitors enjoy a free-choice environment, where they can thoroughly explore things unavailable in most classrooms. Thus, museums are key resources that may help society achieve scientific literacy. This study asked what aspects of the Aquarium of the America's labeling system promote visitor learning. I looked at characteristics of both the text and the displays themselves. By using open-ended interviews rather than formal questionnaires, I allowed visitors to identify information pertinent to them. After observing families viewing the Aquarium's "Living in Water" exhibit, I interviewed them to learn what had made an impact on them. One to two months later, I conducted follow-up interviews with each family member. Although families did not come away with the strong cognitive gains we might desire, they did come away with some strong episodic memories. Visitors tended to describe their interactions with each other and the displays rather than the actual label content---except for cartoon labels. Nevertheless, when visitors found displays that raised questions, they were curious to find answers and more likely to mention them. Families also described more details of interactive displays, particularly those that used various senses and emotions. Such potentially powerful interactives must be carefully tested, or we may create tenacious misconceptions rather than greater understanding. Based on my observations, I developed an Exhibit Interactivity Rubric (EIR) which may be useful in developing meaningful exhibits. Some families created their own analogies relating to a display. Some of these analogies were repeated by several family members during both interviews and seemed to have significant power in creating memories and understandings. By making use of analogies, whether created by exhibit designers or by visitors themselves, we may help visitors increase their retention of significant elements of their visits.