Street Smarts: Experiments in Urban Social Science
As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative research, approaches and resources for use in a variety of settings. To bring research on social psychology to public urban environments, the Street Smarts project will produce an outdoor learning installation in front of San Francisco City Hall that will serve the diverse audiences that frequent the area. The outdoor space will be populated with exhibits that engage this public in social observation and participatory experiences, promoting learning about the science of social polarization, social dilemmas, and social norms. These exhibits will not only engage the public in third-person experience of social and behavioral sciences content, but also create first-person engagement and reflection as visitors come to examine their own participation in social dynamics. By adding exhibits and digital content to social gathering places, Street Smarts will frame and augment people's natural social curiosity with the perspectives and skills of social psychology researchers. In the process, visitors will acquire new social observation skills, reflect on their own perceptions and actions, empathize with others of different social identities, and increase their appreciation for how social behavior, emotion, and thought can be studied scientifically. This project draws from a growing practice of creating informal learning spaces in public environments. A renaissance of urban design in the public interest led by groups such as the Project for Public Spaces, Gehl Design, and the Exploratorium's Studio for Public Spaces aims to create human-scaled, intentionally social, and increasingly educational gathering spaces in cities across the world. The project will produce an online "Guide to People Watching" for the general public, with additional materials to support professionals in the creation of social science learning experiences.
Inquiry into social phenomena is not only critical to understanding psychological mechanisms and principles, but is of fundamental importance in maintaining a citizenry capable of meeting real life global challenges. The project will build on and extend informal learning research into social metacognition conducted by the Exploratorium and others. Street Smarts will produce new research on how to design experiences that prompt structured, quasi-scientific social observation skills and foster empathy for the social experience of others. The research will address three questions: (1) Are public exhibits about social phenomena more likely than public exhibits about physical phenomena to engage people in interactions with strangers, particularly those who appear different from themselves in societally important aspects? (2) What types of social science exhibit designs for public spaces and the roles they promote most effectively promote social scientific thinking skills? And (3) What types of social science exhibit designs and the roles they promote foster empathy for people who appear to be different from one another? To answer these questions, a quasi-experimental research study will employ real-time observations, interviews, and surveys with 240 randomly-sampled individuals (80 in each treatment condition). By comparing physical science exhibits in the control condition to the social science exhibits in a treatment condition, the project will determine which type of exhibit phenomenon best promotes stranger interactions, holding user role constant. Comparing two treatment conditions will support an investigation of the effect of user role on social scientific thinking and empathy, holding type of exhibit phenomenon constant. In all conditions, we will assess demographics and aspects of participant experience, including awareness of roles, level of social scientific thinking, and degree of empathy for other users. Analyses will include chi-square tests of independence and linear regressions to determine relationships between exhibit designs and user outcome variables. Through project development and research, Street Smarts will build new knowledge about how the public learns about and reflects on social phenomena as well as design strategies to facilitate that learning in public settings.