If you want to increase interest and engagement in museum exhibits in STEM subjects in children and tween visitors, enlist the help of teenage docents. This is the finding of recent research carried out by North Carolina State University in the US and the University of Exeter in the UK.
The study surveyed more than 2,100 visitors to ‘informal learning sites’, including a zoo, an aquarium, a children’s museum, a technology-themed museum and a health-themed science centre. It found that teenage educators had a positive effect on the experiences of all age groups, but the effect was most marked in children aged 9 to 11.
NC State researchers Kelly Lynn Mulvey, associate professor of psychology and Adam Hartstone-Rose, associate professor of biological sciences, led the research, which measured interest levels at the end of the visit with questions that covered topic interest and informational recall of exhibit content.
They found that levels of information retention among 9-to 11-year-olds were markedly higher when they interacted with a youth rather than an adult educator.
“We know that learning is highly social, so we expected that visitors would benefit more when they interacted with an educator,” Mulvey says. “But, we were very surprised at how helpful talking with a teen educator was – perhaps this is because a teenage educator isn’t too far removed from them, age-wise. Not only can the educator present the topic on the correct level, these kids can also look up to and see themselves in the teenagers, more than in an adult who they might view as just another teacher.”
The researchers were also surprised to find higher engagement levels from adults when interacting with youth educators as compared to adult educators.
“What was fascinating was not only the strong impact on child visitors, but also the higher engagement level from adults,” Hartstone-Rose says. “I refer to that effect as the ‘charm factor’ – the idea that the adults may want to invest time to help youth succeed.” Another theory was that learning from a youth educator poses less of a threat to the self-esteem of adult visitors than learning from an adult peer might.
“These results also make a compelling argument for investing in youth programmes,” Hartstone-Rose says. “The bottom line is, if you visit a zoo or museum, seek these people out – you will have a better experience.”
Here we speak to the researchers about their findings, and the implications for museums and attractions looking to reopen safely following the covid-19 pandemic.