Science Learning+

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Photo Credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

Research highlights

  • Primary aim was to identify the opportunities for and barriers to researching the long-term impacts of informal science learning experiences at zoos and aquariums.
  • Project findings suggest shifting future research away from a likely futile attempt to isolate the long-term effects of zoo and aquarium learning only, and toward a research agenda that attempts to describe how zoo and aquarium learning experiences interact with, influence, and are influenced by other science learning experiences in one's life.

Download a full report of the project's activities and findings.


"Investigating the Long-term Impacts of Informal Science Learning at Zoos and Aquariums" was a one-year project funded by Science Learning+, a collaboration between the National Science Foundation, the Wellcome Trust (UK), and the UK-based Economic and Social Research Council, and in collaboration with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Noyce Foundation. The study aimed to identify the opportunities for and barriers to researching the long-term impacts of informal science learning experiences at zoos and aquariums; and to construct a proposal for a five-year study as the first step in a longer research relationship between WCS and ZSL. The project concluded in November 2015.

Research context

Zoos and aquariums are some of the most popular sites for informal science learning in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the United States, more than 180 million people visit an accredited zoo or aquarium each year, and in the United Kingdom, 25 million people visit accredited zoos and aquariums annually. These impressively high visitation numbers make zoos and aquariums an important focus for informal science learning research. Additionally, to our knowledge, no study to date has investigated what happens in the long-term after a zoo or aquarium visitor engages in an informal science learning experience. Despite important advances in the zoo and aquarium field in recent decades, we still do not have a clear understanding of the ways that zoo and aquarium visitors are applying science and conservation learning beyond the walls of the zoo or aquarium.

Research question

What are and how do we measure the long-term impacts of an informal science learning experience at a zoo and aquarium?


We carried out (1) a thorough review of the literature (under review); (2) a series of consultative workshops with education practitioners in the US and Europe; (3) a survey of zoo and aquarium executives; and (4) a survey of visitors to zoos in New York and London.

Major findings

  • A review of the literature found just five zoo and aquarium-focused studies that collected data over periods longer than six months.
  • Existing evaluation efforts at zoos and aquariums are most frequently focused on participant satisfaction and immediate/short-term outcomes.
  • Evidence for long-term effects of informal science learning at zoos and aquariums tends to be anecdotal in nature.
  • The most frequently cited intended educational outcomes of programs at zoos and aquariums were conservation awareness, connecting to wildlife, and experiencing science.
  • While learning science facts and concepts was reported most frequently, zoo members also said their visits motivated them to learn more about science and the world around them.
  • Zoo and aquarium professionals recognize the need for and value in identifying and measuring long-term effects.
  • Most zoos and aquariums lack the capacity and expertise to conduct long-term evaluation and research projects.
  • Evidencing the long-term effect of a single visit to a zoo or aquarium may be impossible.
  • Opportunities for future research include:
    • Investigating to what extent and in what ways informal science learning experiences at zoos and aquariums motivate visitors to pursue science learning in other settings, and apply science learning in their everyday lives.
    • Examining in greater detail existing long-term data sets or evaluation efforts underway at zoos and aquariums.
    • Executing a longitudinal study at least five years in duration.
    • Including professional development and capacity building to enable additional zoos and aquariums to contribute to this research agenda.
  • Findings suggest using the methodologically neutral, exploratory term effect rather than the more convergent, objective-oriented term impact to denote the longer-term learning outcomes associated with a zoo or aquarium experience. Using effect rather than impact does not resolve the problem of attribution, but it does guard against the chimera of certainty and acknowledges the difficulty of establishing unequivocal lines of determination.
Download a full report of the project's activities and findings.

Key research staff

  • Dr. Brian Johnson, Principal Investigator
  • Don Lisowy, Co-Principal Investigator
  • Susan Chin, Co-Principal Investigator
  • Sarah Thomas, Co-Principal Investigator (Zoological Society of London)
  • Dr. Nicole Ardoin, Co-Principal Investigator (Stanford University)
  • Professor Murray Saunders, Co-Principal Investigator (Lancaster University)
  • Rachel Haydon (Zoological Society of London)
  • Karen Tingley
  • Hal Kramer

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1451313.

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