Touch Tank Scientists: Diving Deeper with Inquiry

Kate Leavitt | Director of Mission

Kate earned a Master of Arts degree in Biology from Miami University through Project Dragonfly and its Global Field Program in December 2018. As part of her studies, she conducted research on inquiry-based learning based at the Seacoast Science Center. Kate’s research report, Touch Tank Scientists: Diving Deeper with Inquiry, was published in Current, The Journal of Marine Education in summer 2018. Her studies have greatly benefitted the Seacoast Science Center and inspired her to co-create the Center’s new Touch Tank Scientists exhibit.

Preface

My research into inquiry-based learning revealed that informal learning environments, like the Seacoast Science Center (SSC), are ideal for generating visitor excitement and inspiring motivation and interest through the infusion of Scientific Inquiry (SI) principles and practices (National Research Council, 2009). I learned that live animal exhibits and touch tanks, in particular, are optimal platforms for taking visitor learning to a deeper level by offering a combination of live animal experiences, hands-on interactions, and staff-led interpretive programming. Despite these resources, research does not indicate that aquariums take advantage of this potential (Kisiel, Rowe, Vartabedian & Kopczak, 2012).

The 200-gallon touch tank at SSC is our flagship exhibit, and average visitor dwell time of twelve minutes blows away the dwell time averages for the rest of our exhibits, which hover around two to three minutes. The potential was real and felt almost palpable. The Center’s atmosphere is one that sparks curiosity, inspires exploration, and encourages visitors to map their own learning. Couple this with a tank of live animals that are not only safe to touch, but are novel, sometimes otherworldly and highly accessible, I saw an exhibit that was rife with opportunity.

I wanted to know if it was possible to bridge these experiences from ones that excite, inspire, and inform to ones that develop the visitor’s identity as a science learner. We wondered if we could develop naturalist-facilitated lessons at the touch tank that encouraged inquiry via rocky shore research that could be done right in the tank. With the help of my education team and learning scientists at University of New Hampshire, we developed a series of short lessons that helped visitors generate research questions that could be conducted in the touch tank. We provided support with tools and instruments (magnifiers, calipers, wet rulers, dive slates to record data, small quadrats, stopwatches), and helped all ages devise a plan to observe and collect their data. Meeting a diversity of learners’ needs and abilities was challenging due to the wide variety of ages, time available, interests and developmental levels of our visitors, but by scaffolding the approach we were able to support our youngest and speediest visitors by providing them with more pieces of their inquiry puzzle up front (Lederman, 2009). I am proud to say that this new program inspired our Director of Exhibits and I to co-create a brand new Touch Tank Scientists exhibit at the SSC and planted the seed for a new way of engaging visitors in inquiry at exhibits.

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