Interactive Technology in the Modern Zoo and Aquarium

Guest Author: Drew Heyward, South Carolina Aquarium

Technology and education are often linked in formal education settings but we are just beginning to explore technology’s role in informal education environments. In general, people’s attitude towards technology remains positive, with studies revealing that museums with technology see visitor experience improve4. Attitudes toward technology outside of the educational spectrum remain high as well, with 67% of subjects maintaining that they do not feel overwhelmed by the amount of technology and information available in today’s environment8. These general attitudes have prompted the South Carolina Aquarium to explore new technologies within their interpretive design. Interactive iPads have recently been added to existing exhibit spaces and plans are in the works to invest in additional iPad programming for use in roaming educational initiatives.

Interactive technology at VA aquariumZoos and aquariums regard education as a primary goal of the visitor experience. Because of this, many education departments align their programming to fit national science standards. National standards are currently encouraging inquiry-based learning in the core of the science curriculum9. Learning rooted in inquiry is an active process of engaging and manipulating objects, experiences, and generating curiosity about observations made1. While inquiry-based education practices are being incorporated into informal learning environments, the task of facilitating these inquiries can be overwhelming and sometimes impossible. The use of technology as a facilitator of inquiry and a tool for interpretation could impact a larger number of people within exhibits and galleries. If successful inquiry-based curriculum is developed for technologies, this medium has tremendous potential to be replicated and easily integrated across a wide range of learning environments.

This idea is not altogether novel. We have seen an influx of learning technologies pop up in informal education venues. After decades of intense promotion by corporations, policy makers, and parents, most people have far more access to mobile technologies in their daily life than ever before3. The social media buzz has added to this demand, giving rise to the integration of mobile technologies in many new exhibits at zoos and aquariums. Quick response codes, hash tags and Facebook pages are impacting visitors long after they have left the attraction. This is expanding the potential for learning well beyond the walls of the institution.

Many elements of technology are added to exhibits to increase visitor retention within those exhibits and extend the overall stay of the guests using them. The use of “dwell time” as a measurement of public interest is not a foreign concept in the zoo and aquarium world. Many institutions research how long visitors remain in exhibits and use that information when designing new experiences2. The importance of visitor retention should not be diminished. While an enriching environment is imperative to promoting true learning, the best educational situations in the world will not lead to learning unless the visitor spends some time engaging with the exhibition in which they are present6. Since informal educators are dealing with non-captive and diverse audiences, the struggle is how to retain visitors while relaying important educational material to a wide range of ages and backgrounds.

General attitudes towards technology remain high, however it’s difficult to gauge visitor attitudes about technology within the zoo and aquarium framework. Some research suggests that visitors value zoos and aquariums as ‘‘natural’’ experiences and use them as an escape from aspects of everyday life5. If this is the case, could technology negatively influence visitor experience? This is a difficult question to answer. The struggle is maintaining relevance without losing the escapism that comes with a visit to the attraction. Drawing on other’s experiences, you can make informed decisions on where that balance lies within your own institution.

Choosing the correct form of technology can be a difficult challenge as well. Tablets and their interactive applications allow learners to participate in inquiries that would not be possible without their presence. Tablets, phones and computers all have the ability to progress curiosity with an array of digital media, much of which is featuring things guests would never be able to encounter on an average visit. Tablets in particular, allow visitors to explore something recognizable. The Pew Internet Project found that 19% of Americans own a tablet of some kind with 83% of those tablets being iPads10. Allowing guests to access technology that is both familiar and novel could spark curiosity and enhance learning.

The South Carolina Aquarium has recently added iPads to their exhibits and plans on equipping volunteers and staff with additional tablets for mobile interpretation. These units include touch screen maps, images, video, sound bites and educational information. To avoid taking away from the escapism that comes with a visit to our attraction, the Aquarium has developed programs that encourage interaction with the exhibits themselves. When looking at the results from observational studies conducted at our facility, it is suggested that iPads within a gallery do not negatively influence the interactive experience but rather supplement the exhibit in a positive way.

Many of the interactions in galleries containing iPads were sustained longer and therefore acted as ‘speed bumps’ for visitors making their way through the Aquarium. Pictures and prompts that ask questions about exhibits, specific animals or areas of the Aquarium have sparked visitor interest about various topics, including conservation, donations and animal care. Providing purpose and narrative to your technology is imperative to providing an exceptional product. This is why inquiry and interpretation is so important when developing technology for exhibits. Technology’s presence for its novelty alone doesn’t always accomplish educational goals.

As it has done at the South Carolina Aquarium, technology can provide an innovative and immediately attractive environment. While a gentle balance is necessary, the use of technology within exhibits can allow for an enhanced guest experience. If continued inquiry-based curriculum is developed for these technologies, zoos and aquariums can be industry leaders in integrating them across a wide range of learning environments.

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Categories: Interpretation tools, Technology | Leave a comment

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