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.

Research Agendas

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.

Related documents:

The result of this work was the creation of a Children's Museum Research Network (CMRN) in 2015 with funding from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. Its goal is to collectively develop a sustainable infrastructure for generating actionable, cross-institutional research results to advance the field-wide priorities established in the Learning Value of Children's Museum's Research Agenda.

Zoos and Aquaria

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Social Science Research Agenda 2020 is intended to be a compass to guide the next decade of social science research by and about zoos and aquariums in the AZA community. The agenda builds off of and extends the previous AZA Framework for Zoo and Aquarium Social Science Research published in 2010.  It reflects the priorities, trends and emerging issues that social scientists and practitioners in the AZA community have identified as the most relevant to address to help them meet their missions. While the primary audience for the agenda is the AZA community, its applicability extends beyond the AZA membership to other accredited zoos and aquariums worldwide. The key research questions and accompanying sub-questions also hold relevance for the broader informal learning community who may also be grappling with similar issues.

The development of the social science research agenda was a multi-step, iterative process engaging a broad cross-section of stakeholders over many months. The resulting research agenda seeks to address the following key research questions:

  1. How can zoos and aquariums help build a more equitable society through critical reflection on their internal operations, culture, and communications? How can zoo and aquarium diversity, equity, access and inclusive (DEAI) efforts support this?

  2. What is the role of zoos and aquariums in communities, including in the context of striving for environmental and social justice?

  3. What is the role of zoos and aquariums in contributing to social change toward conservation?

  4. What is the role of zoos and aquariums in contributing to the development of a person’s intellectual, social emotional and physical well-being?

  5. How can zoos and aquariums maximize their systemic impact on conservation?

The Social Science Research and Evaluation Scientific Advisory Group of the AZA Research and Technology Committee will function as champions of the agenda and work with AZA and its members to implement and track progress toward addressing the research questions outlined in the agenda.

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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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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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