Research Summary

An educational intervention maximizes children’s learning during a zoo or aquarium visit

Tailored educational experiences and hands-on activities positively affect student learning

The Journal of Environmental Education
2020

A highlight for many students is a visit to a zoo, aquarium, or wildlife park. These institutions provide science and conservation education, and many offer environmental education experiences. However, few researchers have looked into how a visit to one of these facilities can impact a child’s learning and influence their future decisions. This study sought to understand the direct effects of a visit to an aquarium or wildlife park paired with an educational intervention on a student’s knowledge, attitude, and behavior specific to captive species.

The research was conducted at two participating locations in Ireland: Fota Wildlife Park (Fota) in Carrigtwohill and Dingle Aquarium (Dingle) in Kerry. The study participants included over 500 students who attended a tour at one of the facilities with their class during the months of April, May, and June in 2014, 2015, or 2016. The students represented 23 classes from 10 schools, including co-ed schools and some all-girls schools. The size of the class varied from 18-36 students per class. The students’ age range was about 9 to 12 years old or third to sixth grade in Ireland. Each class was randomly assigned as a control group or experimental group. Both control and experimental groups took a survey in their classrooms before visiting the aquarium or wildlife park, and a post-visit survey within a week of the visit. For students in the experimental group, the educational intervention was conducted in their respective classrooms after the first survey and prior to visiting the facility. Though the species at the aquarium and wildlife park were different, the researchers based the survey and educational intervention on the species that the general visitor population most want to see at each place: lemurs (Fota) and penguins (Dingle). The educational intervention took one hour, included a slideshow about the focus species, and had a hands-on activity. In the activity, students made enrichment items, like toys, for the lemurs and penguins that they gave to the animals during their class visit.

The surveys contained three sections to assess the students’ knowledge about the given species, attitude about captive animals, and behavior toward animals in captivity. The surveys included questions about the participants’ background and demographics, multiple-choice questions to assess knowledge, and a five-point scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree) to assess participants’ attitude, and behavior. A linear regression was run with the survey data to identify relationships between the variables and was checked against various statistical software systems.

In both control and experimental groups, students that went to Fota showed an increase in all three research areas (knowledge, attitude, and behavior). Students who visited Dingle also showed an increase in all three researchers areas, but at a lesser rate than the students who visited Fota. The researchers attribute this to the nature of the facility. A wildlife park usually has more interactive and natural experiences like walking through an exhibit outdoors, whereas an aquarium is primarily an indoors experience with less direct access to the species or habitats.

Between the pre- and post-visit surveys, the data showed the experimental groups saw an increase in species knowledge and responsible behavior, while attitude toward captive animals was largely unchanged. Increases in knowledge were most significant in the experimental group of students and students who went to Fota. Students from both rural and urban schools saw an increase in knowledge in the experimental group, though rural students tended to have a higher increase in knowledge. Rural students from the control group saw a decrease in knowledge, perhaps because of their proximity to nature as compared with urban students. Both co-ed and all-girls school students saw an increase in knowledge in the experimental groups. However, all-girls school students had the highest rate of knowledge increase in the experimental group and the lowest knowledge decrease in the control group. Students who visited Fota from both the control and experimental groups, students from all-girls schools from both the control and experimental groups, and students in the experimental group despite their affiliation or site visited had the greatest increase in responsible behavior changes. The attitude of students toward animals in captivity was influenced by the site, with Fota being most impactful, and by student gender, with girls being more likely to have positive attitude change. However, both were statistically insignificant. The researchers concluded the most impactful factors that affected the results of the surveys were the group students were assigned (experimental or control), the facility visited (Fota or Dingle), school location (rural or urban), and school type and gender (co-ed and all-girls).

The researchers acknowledge there are some limitations in this study. First, there was a small sample size of single-sex schools and disadvantaged schools (those with fewer resources) were not well represented in the study. Second, most of the students had been to a zoo or aquarium before, so the researchers found it hard to develop questions that accurately captured a student’s regard for wildlife because of their previous exposure to these learning environments compared to students that had not been before. Third, the analysis for the behavior portion is based on intended, not actual behaviors. Further, the treatment of captive species does not directly translate to responsible or pro-environmental behavior. Fourth, an informal learning setting makes measuring effects more difficult. Finally, the two facilities chosen simultaneously limit the scope and broaden the variation between the results, making the study less generalizable.

Based on the results of this study, the researchers recommend zoos, aquariums, and wildlife parks work with formal educators to provide more in-depth and hands-on educational experiences for visitors, especially children, to enhance the informal learning experience at these facilities. For example, the hands-on activity of making an enrichment toy prior to the zoo or park visit, and the students getting to watch the animals interact with their toy during the visit enhanced the student learning experience. In addition, these experiences should be tailored for different age groups and should take place in formal learning settings to complement the informal nature of education at these institutions.

The Bottom Line

Zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks provide science and conservation education. However, limited research exists about how a visit to one of these facilities can impact a child’s environmental learning. This study sought to understand the direct effects of an educational intervention paired with a visit on a student’s knowledge, attitude, and behavior specific to captive species at an aquarium or wildlife park. The researchers found that children generally had an increase in knowledge, attitude, and behavior as a result of visiting an aquarium or wildlife park, but that the most significant increase was demonstrated by students who had an educational intervention before the visit. They recommend zoos, aquariums, and wildlife parks work with formal educators to provide more in-depth and hands-on educational experiences for visitors, especially children, to enhance the informal learning experience at these facilities. Specifically, these experiences should be tailored for different age groups and take place in formal learning settings to complement the informal nature of learning at these institutions.