Eight-Legged Encounters—Arachnids, Volunteers, and Art help to Bridge the Gap between Informal and Formal Science Learning
Increased integration and synergy between formal and informal learning environments is proposed to provide multiple benefits to science learners. In an effort to better bridge these two learning contexts, we developed an educational model that employs the charismatic nature of arachnids to engage the public of all ages in science learning; learning that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas associated with Biodiversity and Evolution). We created, implemented, and evaluated a family-focused, interactive science event—Eight-Legged Encounters (ELE)—which encompasses more than twenty modular activities. Volunteers facilitated participant involvement at each activity station and original artwork scattered throughout the event was intended to attract visitors. Initial ELE goals were to increase interest in arachnids and science more generally, among ELE participants. In this study, we tested the efficacy of ELE in terms of (i) activity-specific visitation rates and self-reported interest levels, (ii) the self-reported efficacy of our use of volunteers and original artwork on visitor engagement, and (iii) self-reported increases in interest in both spiders and science more generally. We collected survey data across five ELE events at four museum and zoo sites throughout the Midwest. We found that all activities were successful at attracting visitors and capturing their interest. Both volunteers and artwork were reported to be effective at engaging visitors, though likely in different ways. Additionally, most participants reported increased interest in learning about arachnids and science. In summary, ELE appears effective at engaging the public and piquing their interest. Future work is now required to assess learning outcomes directly, as well as the ability for participants to transfer knowledge gain across learning environments.