Research Summary

How full is your luggage? Background knowledge of zoo visitors regarding sharks

Examining Preconceived Ideas of Sharks to Design Better Zoo Exhibits

Environmental Education Research

Sharks are commonly perceived as aggressive, violent, and dangerous—a view often propagated by media. Zoos and aquariums try to counter this antagonistic vision by exposing visitors to a more accurate depiction of sharks and their role in the marine ecosystem. This is approached through interpretation and positive experiences with live animals. To improve the quality of these learning experiences, the institution where this study took place, Zoomarine, performed an evaluation of its programs and visitors. Their first goal was to understand what information and attitudes participants are bringing to their visit: specifically, how their young and adolescent visitors think about sharks. The second goal was to develop teaching strategies based on this information.

The researchers collected data in two phases. The first phase was an exploratory study and included 235 museum visitors aged 8 to 16. These participants were asked to draw a shark using their memory and conception of the animal, without the addition of hints or prompts. Participation was voluntary, and there were no time limitations. These drawings were coded and analyzed by a single researcher, according to four categories: anatomy, behavior, physiology, and classification. Each aspect of the drawing (such as anatomy and behavior) was subsequently coded to one of three levels of complexity: initial, intermediate, and reference.

Based on the results of the first phase of the study, the authors designed a second phase to acquire more information about participants’ ideas and experiences related to sharks. Five visitors of different ages (between 8- to 14-years old) were selected and asked to participate in a semi-structured interview about their work, particularly regarding their knowledge and representation of shark biology, anatomy, and ecology, and the environments in which sharks live.

Based on the analysis of the drawings collected in the first phase of the study, the authors identified five categories and 19 subcategories that represented various aspects of the drawing content. Based on the second phase of the study, which included drawings and interviews, the authors identified additional features, for a total of 13 categories and 33 subcategories. These categories and subcategories included: anatomy (subcategories: gill slits, fins, mouth, human expression, plus six more); community (biological diversity, ecological connectivity); environment (distribution, natural habitat, and two others); trophic relations (diet, predation); population (sharks); conservation (ecological importance, status); behavior (activity, aggressiveness); senses (vision, smell, hearing); physiology (breathing); classification (class); movement (migration, mobility); reproduction (reproductive capacity and strategy); and longevity.

For the purposes of analysis and discussion, the authors focused on four of the categories: anatomy, behavior, physiology, and classification. For each of these categories, the authors identified three levels of understanding: initial, intermediate, and reference. These levels allowed the authors to better analyze the drawing and interview data. The authors also describe these levels as a framework that could be used by future educators.

To illustrate the authors’ analytic process, in the anatomy category, all three levels of understanding were identified. At the initial level, the features identified were considerably different from scientific understanding. Initial level drawings, for example, had shark heads detached from the rest of the body, human facial expressions, or rectangular teeth. The intermediate level included drawings and verbal explanations representing a somewhat more comprehensive or factual understanding, such as the presence of both caudal and dorsal fins, though with no reference to their use. The reference level drawings included features such as correctly proportioned heads, the inclusion of a pectoral fin, and descriptions of cartilaginous skeletons, among other features.

The authors followed a similar analytic process for the behavior, physiology, and classification categories. Based on this analysis, the authors discerned that most visitors had very little understanding of shark behavior. Not a single participant expressed or drew what the authors deemed reference-level behavior traits, such as hunting primarily at dawn or dusk. Instead, most references to shark behavior incorrectly described sharks as naturally aggressive, or attempting to hunt and attack humans (initial-level understanding).

A similar lack of understanding was found for the category of shark physiology. The authors noted that there are several approachable concepts related to shark physiology, such as skeletons made of cartilage and huge livers that help with buoyancy, among others. However, the only physiological process addressed by the study participants was related to gas exchange. Participants either described sharks incorrectly as air-breathers with lungs (initial level) or correctly described the way sharks extract oxygen from water passing over their gills (reference level).

Finally, with regard to the classification category, participants either categorized sharks incorrectly as mammals (initial level) or correctly as fish (reference level).

Based on these findings, the authors suggest the primary barriers to gaining a more advanced understanding of sharks include the negative reputation of sharks and an anthropocentric view, centered on a perceived relationship between sharks and humans. Another aspect of this anthropocentric view was marked by human characteristics being incorrectly assigned to sharks. One suggestion for overcoming these barriers includes focusing shark education on simple characteristics to alleviate common misconceptions about sharks and their role in the ocean ecosystem. Another suggestion is to ask questions directly related to how sharks are different from humans, such as: “Do sharks breathe underwater?” or “Why aren’t sharks mammals?” These types of questions can be used to help visitors move toward progressively higher levels of understanding.

The Bottom Line

When designing effective educational materials, understanding the preconceived notions of students or other visitors to a zoo or museum is essential. One method for discerning these preconceived notions is to allow students or visitors to draw their understanding of a subject, without additional prompting. Semi-structured interviews can provide additional insight into student understanding. This data can then be used to identify areas of misunderstanding and to focus educational efforts. Determining different levels of understanding of a subject, from initial to reference level, can also provide valuable information for formulating educational goals.