Developing Guidelines for Designing Challenging and Rewarding Interactive Science Exhibits
Informal learning, and by extension, museums, are inherently emotional experiences, evoking feelings of awe, excitement, and curiosity. Oftentimes, museum professionals have prioritized traditionally positive emotions such as excitement and interest as being the most desirable and useful in supporting museum learning. However, prior research into naturally occurring emotions at museums found that some visitors who experienced negative emotions, such as confusion or frustration, at exhibits also reported deeper engagement and overall feelings of satisfaction (Rappolt-Schlichtmann et al., 2017). Based on these findings and similar results from formal education (D’Mello et al., 2014), this project team has worked to develop and refine a framework of strategies for creating exhibits that invoke and support visitors through the complex emotional state called productive struggle (PS) which is defined as a three-part emotional arc characterized by: 1) disequilibrium (experienced emotionally as emotions like confusion, frustration, surprise, or unease) that arises from encountering a challenging task, phenomenon, or idea, 2) persistence through the task which is supported by exhibit design scaffolds, and 3) an emotionally productive resolution tied to the source of disequilibrium or an overall sense of effortful achievement. In deliberately attending to and supporting a range of negative and positive emotions in museums, visitors can gain access to a wider variety of complex emotional experiences, including those critical to STEM learning, and have potential to broaden participation in STEM by supporting learners' diverse emotional needs and preferences.
This multidisciplinary project team consisting of researchers and exhibit professionals utilized a design-based research (DBR) process to develop, test, and refine a definition of museum-based productive struggle, and create a framework of design strategies that support PS. Three physical exhibits and a virtual exhibit were created during this multi-year project. Additionally, a summative research study was conducted with 105 youth ages 10-17 to explore: 1) whether visitors experienced the expected emotional arc of PS; 2) how exhibit design strategies supported PS; and 3) the extent of visitors’ learning and engagement at these PS exhibits.
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