Long-term impacts of educational interventions in zoos and aquariums

Collins, C., Corkery, I., McKeown, S., McSweeney, L., Flannery, K., Kennedy, D., & O'Riordan, R. (2020). Quantifying the long-term impact of zoological education: a study of learning in a zoo and an aquarium. Environmental Education Research, 26, 1008 - 1026.

Education is a key component of the missions of many zoos and aquariums, from providing information to visitors to establishing extended camp-style programs for children. Research has shown that children learn during visits and through educational programming at these facilities. However, little is known about how the length of an educational program effects children's learning or what the long-term effect of such an experience can be. This study aimed to provide further information regarding the long-term impacts of educational interventions (programming designed to enhance visitor's learning) at a zoo and aquarium. First, the researchers evaluated the effects of a five-day educational zoo program on participant's knowledge, attitudes, and knowledge of positive behavior. They then compared impacts between a one-day school tour evaluated in a previous study and the five-day program. Additionally, the researchers investigated changes in knowledge, attitudes, and knowledge of positive behavior immediately after a visit to an aquarium and six months later.

Fota Wildlife Park Program
The five-day camp program and the one-day school tour both took place at the Fota Wildlife Park (also referred to as the zoo) in Ireland between 2013 and 2016. Children ages 9 years through 12 years were invited to take part in the survey at the beginning of the five-day camp. Each child completed a pre-survey on the first day of the program and a post-survey on the final day of the program. The surveys measured participants' knowledge, attitude, and knowledge of positive behavior towards zoo animals. Researchers calculated scores for each of these categories for analysis. A total of 110 matched pairs of surveys were collected. Half of the camp groups were the control groups and did not receive the educational intervention (EI), while the other half participated in the EI during their time at camp. The EI was an hour-long class consisting of a presentation and hands-on activities about Ring-tailed lemurs and Humboldt penguins. The results from the surveys were then compared to the results of a previous study by the same researchers which evaluated a one-day school program at the Fota Wildlife Park with similar surveys.

With regards to the five-day camp program, the researchers found that children who participated in the EI were significantly more likely than the children in the control group to increase knowledge from the pre-survey to the post-survey. Children who had not attended camp prior were more likely to have an increase in attitude score than those who had already attended camp. Researchers noted that this may have been the result of previous camp attendees having higher expectations of camp activities than non-campers. Participants in both the treatment and control groups showed increases in their knowledge of positive behavior scores. Researchers found that children who attended the camp had a higher knowledge score on the pre-survey than those who had attended the one-day program. However, more children in the one-day school group had an increase in knowledge after the program than those who attended the camp. The results confirmed prior research that reported increases in children's knowledge and positive behavior following longer educational programs, such as the five-day zoo camp, and that the EI was an effective method for reinforcing learning.

Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium Program
The other portion of the study took place at the Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium in Ireland. Two classes of similarly aged students as the zoo study from one school participated for a total of 91 student participants. They were split into two control groups and two experimental groups. The experimental groups participated in an EI during their visit. Three surveys (similar to the surveys used for the zoo) were administered to each group: a pre-survey, given before the aquarium visit; a post-survey, given immediately following the aquarium visit; and a post-2-survey, which was administered 6 months after the aquarium visit to identify longer-term impacts of the programming.

The researchers found that students in the treatment groups had consistently higher knowledge, attitude, and behavior scores than the students in the control groups. Across the groups, children scored higher on the post and post-2 surveys than on the pre-survey, though students in the control group were more likely to increase their knowledge from the post- to post-2 surveys than those in the treatment group. The treatment group had higher knowledge scores on the initial post-survey, indicating that the EI may have helped them to absorb information faster. While their scores decreased between the post- and post-2 surveys, the control group scores increased from the post- to post-2 surveys. Students in the control group were also more likely to increase their knowledge of positive behavior scores from the post- to post-2 survey, and girls were more likely to increase knowledge than boys. The researchers noted that several factors may have influenced this result, such as post-activity discussions, participants' prior knowledge, or experiences occurring between the surveys.

This study had limitations. The researchers identified the survey as a limitation, stating that it allows for limited self-reporting evaluations by participants. Improvements may include conducting interviews of participants, or developing a survey with more open-ended questions to encourage further analysis of learning. Also, because the study was limited to a zoo and aquarium, the data may not be generalized to use in other informal educational institutions.

The researchers recommend continuing to evaluate the effects of reinforcing learning after an educational experience. In addition, the researchers recommend investigating gender differences with regards to knowledge and attitudes. The researchers emphasize the importance of post-experience discussions and follow ups for enhancing the efficacy of environmental education programs. They recommend that aquariums and zoos consider the impacts of past experiences and prior knowledge when implementing educational programming. For example, participants in a summer camp who return year after year will benefit more from a curriculum that increases in complexity each year to build on existing knowledge but provide new experiences. These results also point to the positive influence of their educational intervention, which suggest in-depth, hands-on activities can enhance learning.

The Bottom Line

<p>Though research has shown that children learn during educational programming at zoos and aquariums, little data on the longer-term impacts of these events exists. This study aimed to provide further information regarding the long-term impacts of educational interventions (EI). It took place at the Fota Wildlife Park (zoo) and the Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium from 2013 to 2016, surveying 201 student participants ages 9-12 years. The researchers evaluated the effects of a five-day educational zoo program compared to a one-day school tour at the Park on three parameters, knowledge, attitudes, and knowledge of positive behavior. The researchers also investigated changes in the same parameters after students visited the aquarium. They found that attendees of the five-day camp who participated in an EI had higher knowledge scores, while more students who attended the one-day program had an increase in knowledge than those who attended camp. Students who visited the aquarium and participated in an EI were less likely to increase their knowledge after the visit and were also less likely to increase their behavior scores. The researchers recommend practitioners consider the impacts of prior knowledge and experiences on participant engagement and utilize hands-on activities to enhance learning.</p>

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