Research Agendas

Across the field of Informal STEM education, agendas are emerging to guide research, support innovative interventions, and to understand, share, and scale successful practice. These agendas are often roadmaps to identify and prioritize possible research directions and questions, and reflect the field's ongoing evolution to connect research and practice. Agendas are typically developed through intensive and inclusive processes involving reviewing current literature, convening experts, summarizing current findings, identifying gaps in evidence, and iteratively vetting the agenda with the broader field.

Current Research Agendas

21st Century Natural History Learning

Institutions that support natural history learning are mobilizing internationally to explore how they can support learning for the “21st Century naturalist”. In the US, the Smithsonian led the development of a learning research agenda with input from educators, scientists, evaluators, and learning researchers. The Natural History Museum London and Kings College London have also launched a series of meetings to develop a research agenda for the UK. The UK and US agenda converged on highly similar themes to guide the field into the 21st century.

Priority Areas for Research and Practice

  • Understanding and facilitating stronger two-way communication between experts and the public. (Identified in both the US + UK processes)
  • Understanding the affordances and value of collections and authentic objects for learning. (US + UK)
  • Domains of knowledge that are core to natural history learning, evolution, biodiversity, sutainability, and science process skill such as observation, comparison, modeling, visualization, etc. (US + UK)
  • Developing and deploying innovative facilitation and mediation of natural history learning that leverage social practices, collections, social media, digital technology and more. (US + UK)
  • Helping to create a broader field of natural history learning by exploring connections between learning, organizational change, and the broader learning ecologies in which our institutions exist. (US only)
  • Understanding the needs, resources, and interests of the wide variety of audiences who come to natural history settings. (UK only)

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Zoos and Aquaria

This evolving framework provides an opportunity for all AZA‐accredited institutions and independent researchers to become involved in social science research and to work collaboratively in order to enhance the impact of zoos and aquariums and the conservation field as a whole. It also provides a structure for individual institution and multi‐institutional studies to be interpreted in the larger picture of what is known about zoos and aquariums, their visitors, and their community relationships. 

The overarching questions below are designed to facilitate the synthesis of information that is useful for and accessible to researchers, educators, marketers, administrators, and other stakeholders:

  • What Role do Zoos and Aquariums Play in Lifelong Learning Experiences?
  • How Do Zoos and Aquariums Complement Other Informal Learning Institutions?
  • How Do Zoos and Aquariums Shape Social Action and Social Activism?
  • What Role do Zoos or Aquariums play regarding Social Services?
  • What are the Unique Characteristics of Learning in Zoos and Aquariums?
  • How Can We Support a Zoo and Aquarium Education Profession?
  • How do we Assess, Disseminate and Apply Existing Knowledge?

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Learning Through Making and Tinkering

Making and tinkering as a context for learning is a rapidly expanding area in ISE. As making and tinkering spaces pop up in museums, libraries, community centers, and afterschool clubs all over the world, practice is rapidly getting ahead of research. To connect and catalyze a new community of researchers focused on making, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh are convening a series of meetings, on-line discussions, and collaborative work. Funded by IMLS and the University of Pittsburgh, an initial meeting was held in July 2014 for researchers, evaluators, and practitioners involved in maker education in library and museum spaces. One outcome of the meeting was identification of emerging learning research questions for learning through making and tinkering:

  • What are the characteristics of powerful making spaces and do those characteristics depend on the specific physical setting of the maker space (museums, libraries, schools, etc.)?
  • What’s the connection between becoming a maker and being engaged in STEM pathways? What other educational outcomes are potentially impacted by making?
  • What are the core practices of making? How can we assess the practices and impact of making experiences?
  • What are the ways that making experiences fit into broader learning ecologies and pathways? How can do research that traces longitudinal pathways for learning as making?
  • How do we create accessible and equitable maker experiences for all children?
  • How do we create a professional development community to engage and develop educators who facilitate making?

A second meeting, funded by the American Educational Research Association, will refine and expand these questions in Spring 2016. 

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Giant Screen Cinema

The Giant Screen Cinema Association is developing a research agenda with input from researchers from multiple research disciplines (e.g. education, communication, psychology) and key stakeholders from the giant screen film industry. The group met in the fall of 2013 to develop key research questions, priorities, and strategies related to giant screen cinema characteristics that impact STEM learning. Proposed outcomes of the project will include development of research proposals and collaborative communities that will address the questions related to the impact of giant screen films and the role of immersion and presence on learning.

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Children's Museums

The Association of Children’s Museums is leading a two phased, IMLS-funded research agenda development process for the children’s museum field. During phase one practitioners, researchers, and evaluators gathered in Washington D.C. in Fall 2013 for a two-day symposium which was followed up by a series of webinars intended to invite broader participation from the whole children’s museum field. As a result the Learning Value of Children’s Museums Research Agenda was developed. The agenda focuses on the following three broad categories, addressing key topics identified by the field:

Characteristics of a Children’s Museum

·  Generating evidence to support value statements about children's museums.

·  Considering what a high quality children’s museum looks like and identifying metrics to determine impact.

·  Understanding how museums learn as institutions, including how staff beliefs about learning impact programming and how research/practice connections can be facilitated on a daily basis.


·  Exploring play, should children’s museums rethink how they talk about/think about the role of play?

·  Taking a lead on early learning research and the foundational skills necessary for success.

·  Understanding and supporting family learning and parent engagement, and how each builds stronger outcomes for the child, family, and community.

Learning Landscapes

·  Focusing on the museum’s role in promoting diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence.

·  Defining  the role of children’s museums in broader community learning ecosystems and their connection to education, health, culture, economic impact, etc.

During the second phase, a cohort of children’s museum practitioners and researchers was then selected to form a network working to identify collaborative research projects that respond to the priorities in the research agenda, conduct research projects across multiple institutions in the research network, and aggregate data to share with the broader children's museum field. The work of the network is ongoing and new information will be made available to the field as we progress.

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