Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Tinkerzeum Planning Project was a one-year collaborative project exploring the feasibility of involving museum visitors in data analysis. These studies, which took place at the Museum of Science in Boston and at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield MA, have helped us understand the kinds of data and exhibits that lead to compelling museum investigations and the types of additional supports visitors require to begin exploring data.
To learn more about the project you can download and view the movie "Engaging Museum Visitors with Data". This seven-minute movie shows visitors investigating reaction-time data collected at the Museum of Science in Boston and at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield MA. The software they are using is TinkerPlots, a tool we developed and currently publish.
To view the the movie you must have QuickTime Player installed. The player can be downloaded free of charge from Apple.
In our final test at the Museum of Science, visitors spent 11 minutes on average exploring data with us at the computer. To engage visitors in this way, we learned that it was important to give them ample time to explore the question that initially draws them in: How do I compare with everyone else? In our initial field tests, we had been rushing visitors past this question to get to what we regarded as the more significant questions concerning general trends and group differences. But it was rare that visitors would ask these higher-level questions. We modified our procedure, introducing visitors to the data more slowly, and spending more time letting them see how they compared with other visitors. One important aspect of this initial phase was that it allowed the visitors to better understand the data and the graphs they were looking at. Once they were satisfied with this initial analysis, they showed considerable interest and ability in exploring other questions, which included whether reaction time was faster for males or females, or for young vs. older visitors.
By giving visitors data and tools for exploring that data at sites where they have been drawn by their interests in particular phenomena, we were able to both deepen their involvement in those phenomena and introduce them to the basic ideas of data analysis. These data inquiry skills are becoming critically important as increasingly more data become available to us and as we insist that all our institutions make objective decisions based on data. Our effort is part of a broader movement among educational institutions, including museums, to involve learners in active exploration. It also responds to the fact that while science topics are now creatively explored in many museum exhibits, museum mathematics is still too frequently a hands-off experience.
This project was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (ESI-0437307). Opinions expressed here are those of the project staff and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.