Researcher Questions & Answers

Learn more about researchers, and what inspires and motivates them, through interviews with several of our Research Partners.

Maureen Callanan, Ph.D.

Dr. Maureen Callanan

Professor of Psychology, University of California-Santa Cruz

Children’s Discovery Museum’s resident research professor discusses her experiences studying families and children at the Museum and what she has learned in more than a decade of research here.

Q. On what area of psychology does your research focus, and why did you choose this particular area?

A. I study developmental psychology, especially cognitive development in the context of family activities. I want to find out how children understand the world and form theories about the world, and how that happens in everyday conversations and interactions.

Q. How did you get involved with Children’s Discovery Museum?

A. My approach has been to study child conversations with family members as a way to understand their thinking, instead of the more traditional method of bringing them into a lab. It’s a way to study development in everyday life. When I observe family conversations in the Museum, children are already in a public space and are more comfortable being observed than in a home or lab, so we have a better chance of seeing how they really think about the world.

I approached CDM 16 years ago together with my (then) postdoc Kevin Crowley. In the initial meeting we asked for permission to invite families to participate while we observed conversations. The Executive Director at the time wanted us to evaluate exhibits as well. We weren’t sure we knew how to do that, but we were interested in families’ explanatory talk while engaging in exhibits, and it turned out that this work helped to inform the museum’s exhibit development. CDM wrote us into a National Science Foundation grant called Take Another Look. Since then I have collaborated with CDM on 3 more NSF grants.

Q. What research have you conducted at the Museum since your relationship began?

A. Key to our approach is that we figured out a way to work where both researchers and the Museum get their needs met. Our research is done in two phases. The first is the prototype phase, where we videotape families and give quick feedback (called blitz coding) to exhibit designers about what children seem to be learning, and also answer questions fundamental to the exhibit design, such as whether families are figuring out how to use the exhibits as intended.

We also use these same videotapes to do much more detailed coding and analyses to help answer Developmental Psychology research questions. We have explored children’s causal thinking and reasoning in a science-related domain, the symbolic nature of video, children’s understanding of analogy in explanations, and how families talk about evidence to answer questions.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. The Mammoth Discovery! exhibit. We are looking at family questions about evidence as they look at the fossil bones: what it is, where it came from. We are also working with individual families. The current study invites one family at a time to be interviewed about their beliefs and attitudes about science, and their use of evidence in scientific inquiry. We also observe their visit to the exhibits. We hope to learn a great deal about how different children learn about science in different families.

Q. How do you develop your studies? How do you decide on subjects, questions, prototypes, etc.?

A. The subject comes from theoretical perspectives and other research going on in the field. New questions come out of previous work and unanswered questions in the field, as well as ideas we get from the CDM exhibit and education teams. Some work is more applied work, for instance, how certain exhibits influence conversation.

Q. What are some challenges you face–and have faced–in your research? How have you dealt with them?

A. Finding a way to make it work in the museum. Getting parents to say yes. During our first attempt, researchers set up next to an exhibit, but that method didn’t work very well. Eventually we learned that the best way is to ask for permission right near the door after parents pay for admission, when they are still in the mode of interacting with other people and haven’t yet begun their museum experience.

Q. What have been the most important findings of your research? Most surprising? Disappointing?

A. The gender finding was important to us, as it was both surprising and discouraging. We discovered that parents and caregivers were explaining more to boys than to girls during visits to exhibits. This was an unusual data set given these parents were spontaneously talking to children in a natural environment, and were parents who chose to bring children to the museum. In the Alice’s Wonderland exhibit, we were able to use what we had learned to see if we could eliminate the gender difference. It was about parents’ perception of what kids were interested in. Many times they don’t explain as much to girls because, consciously or unconsciously, they don’t believe girls would be interested in subjects like math or science. With the Alice exhibit, we were able to create activities that would encourage conversation with both boys and girls, and there was no longer a gender difference.

Q. What have you learned about children’s learning through your research at CDM? How can that be applied in museums and “real life?”

A. Looking at the diversity in how parents and children talk to each other (ethnic, cultural, views on science) helps us to understand the many different ways that children come to understand the world around them..

In one study, we invited Mexican heritage families to go to the Museum with us. One group was parents with at least a high school diploma, one group was parents with less than 9 or 10 years of schooling. We found that the first group was explaining more in the museum, but also that they had very different museum experience. Most of the families in the second group had never been to a museum. Interestingly, when we visited the same two groups of families in the more comfortable space of their homes, both groups of parents explained equally! This showed us that the museum is a very different experience for some visitors than for others.

Q. What has been the most rewarding part of your involvement with CDM?

A. Seeing links between research and practice. Students are interested in and excited about seeing research come to life. Research can be used to change exhibits.

Q. What would you like the public to know about the research that you do at the Museum?

A. I would like them to know more about the findings. Specifically, that everyday conversation is the backbone for children’s learning. Our research shows that when parents do what comes naturally that tends to be the best framework for children’s learning. You don’t need to buy expensive products to help children learn.

Megan Luce, Ph.D.

Dr. Megan Luce

Lawrence Hall of Science

During her graduate studies in cognitive development, Dr. Luce conducted three types of research during prototyping of our Mammoth Discovery! exhibition.

Q. On what area of psychology does your research focus and why did you choose this particular area?

A. My research focuses on children’s cognitive development in social and cultural context. Research on cognitive development has traditionally been approached without serious consideration of the social and cultural aspects of children’s lives. I aim to understand how variation in families’ values about science and knowledge relate to variation in children’s scientific thinking, as one way to study the social and cultural aspects of learning to reason scientifically. I chose this particular area of research because I am deeply interested in how children learn to think and reason in ways that are similar to and different from a scientific worldview. I am also interested in how parents’ attitudes and values about science get communicated to children in the context of everyday life.

Q. How did you get involved with Children’s Discovery Museum?

A. As a graduate student at University of California, Santa Cruz, I worked with Dr. Maureen Callanan in the developmental psychology department. Dr. Callanan has a long-standing research partnership with Children’s Discovery Museum and so I had the opportunity to contribute to various ongoing research projects at CDM. When Dr. Callanan and I were invited to brainstorm exhibition ideas for Mammoth Discovery! I became very excited about the opportunity to create a science exhibition for young children.

Q.What research have you conducted at the Museum since your relationship began?

A. I have conducted three types of research at the Museum. In the ‘Prototype Lab’ research, I have collected data on how families use the exhibits that the Museum staff is testing out. I have also conducted what we call ‘Front-End’ research, to investigate some questions we have about children and families before the Museum team begins to build the exhibit. For example, in one of our front-end studies we interviewed children of various ages about their knowledge of mammoths and other Ice Age animals to get a better idea of what children are likely to know about mammoths already. What we learn from the front-end studies is then incorporated into the exhibition design. The third type of research is basic cognitive development research that does not necessarily involve exhibits. I conducted my dissertation study at the Museum where I invited families to step off the Museum floor into a quiet room to do some problem-solving activities together. I will submit the findings of my dissertation research to academic journals.

Q. Can you describe your involvement with research and prototyping for the Mammoth Discovery! exhibit?

A. As a graduate student researcher, I worked closely with Dr. Maureen Callanan in all phases of research at CDM. For prototyping labs, we went to the Museum on weekends and set up video cameras on focal exhibits. With the help of undergraduate student research assistants we asked families to participate in the research and recorded families as they played with the exhibits. At the end of each day we transported our equipment back to our research lab and began to catalog the videotape we collected. Soon after a day of data collection we began analyzing the data to give feedback to the design team on which aspects of the exhibits worked well and which did not. We also gave quick feedback on what families talked about as they played with the exhibit.

Q. What did you learn from the prototype testing?

A. As a researcher in training, the prototype testing for Mammoth Discovery! taught me about the iterative process of designing science learning experiences for young children. I was able to see the process of coming up with an idea for an exhibit, building it, testing it out, and then revising it based on how children and families interacted with it. In terms of the research on children’s cognitive development, the prototype testing illuminated the various ways that children and families approach science learning in a museum setting. For example, some children are interested in exploring the exhibits on their own, whereas other children explore the exhibits in collaboration with another child or an adult. We learned that some exhibits needed more opportunities for collaborative play than what we had built in to the prototype.

Q. Can you give me an example of how this prototype testing influenced on exhibit’s development?

A. In Prototype Lab #1, we displayed the mammoth skull for visitors to explore. To explore how children and families looked at, talked about, and tried to understand what they were seeing, we did not put much signage around the skull. We learned that it was difficult for children and adults to understand that when they look down at the skull they are actually looking at the roof of the mammoth’s mouth. It takes some mental rotation to visualize where the top and bottom of the head would have been and many families used a combination of explanations and gestures to understand what they were viewing. From this testing, we realized it might help visitors’ understanding if we included a miniature model of the skull on a rotating wheel so they have an object they can use to help them talk about the skull.

Q. Why do you feel it is important to conduct your research in a museum setting?

A. There are several reasons why I feel it is important to conduct my research in a museum setting. First, museums, especially Children’s Discovery Museum, offer parents and children fun and stimulating opportunities to engage in science learning together. Because my research focuses on how children’s thinking and reasoning develop in the context of family activity, museums offer a natural ‘laboratory’ where parents and children are thinking, talking, and playing together. Second, families may be more likely to act ‘naturally’ in a museum environment than they would if they were alone in a laboratory room at the University. Third, many museums draw in a diverse audience, and it is important that I include a diverse set of families in my studies. Finally, conducting research in museums provides an opportunity for parents to learn more about the process of research and about research on cognitive development in particular.

Q. What have you learned about children’s learning through this exhibit?

A. Our research on children’s learning in the Mammoth Discovery!exhibit is still ongoing, and we expect to learn much from our research on the final exhibition. In the prototype testing, we learned that families take varied approaches to engaging with the content of the exhibits. For example, some families are interested in discussing the social aspects of the mammoth. For example, they ask questions about whether she had brothers or sisters and whether she played with other mammoths. Other families are interested in discussing the life-cycle of Lupe. For example, they discuss how she might have died and why there are no more mammoths on Earth. And yet other families are interested in discussing the nature of the fossils that were found. For example, they ask where Lupe’s other bones are. There are many ways that parents and children connect to science content within a museum exhibition, and it points to the need for more science experiences that offer several different ways that people can get interested in the science behind such an awe-inspiring fossil.

Q. What has been the most rewarding part of your involvement with the Lupe team?

A. The most rewarding part of my involvement with the Lupe team has been the intellectual stimulation. The team is comprised of researchers, science education experts, and design experts who are all dedicated to providing the best learning opportunities for young children. My own thinking about children’s learning has been greatly enhanced by many conversations with the team about how best to design science experiences to engage children in fun and high-quality learning.

Q. Do you have a favorite exhibit, if so which one and why?

A. I do have a favorite exhibit! I like the Erosion Tables the best. I was very interested in Geology as a child and I was always intrigued by the power of water to change the way our landscapes look. With the Erosion Tables, children can explore how water moves sand, dirt, and rocks to uncover mysteries deep underground! It inspires me to think about how different San Jose has looked in the past and what it might look like in the future.


Lynn Kawaratani

Senior Exhibit Designer, Smithsonian Institution

Ms. Kawaratani contributed to the design of our Mammoth Discovery! exhibition.

Q. What does it mean to be an exhibit designer?

A. The exhibit designer takes the content and ideas of the exhibit development team and creates a tangible experience for the museum visitor.

Q. Can you describe your process for designing the Mammoth Discovery! exhibit?

A. Mammoth Discovery! was a unique project because of the collaboration between three different institutions — UC Santa Cruz, UCMP and CDM. Each partner shared their own expertise and perspective to the process both complicating and enriching it. We met regularly as a group and I also worked very closely with Sara DeAngelis the Senior Exhibit Developer to synthesize these goals into a coherent visitor experience. In design, it is absolutely essential to define a strong single message/concept/vision for the exhibit before the design can really move forward.

The first part of the process was to conduct initial play testing sessions with Museum visitors as well as spend time gathering information. We then launched into 3 rounds of prototyping, reviewing the activity components with both the core team and the Museum cohorts before opening them to the general public. Interactive elements were introduced, evaluated, modified, re-introduced, re-evaluated and revised several times over. We used both direct observation and numerical data collected to determine what worked, what needed improvement and what should be deleted. This helped keep our own personal biases in check.

Although much of the attention was placed on the details of each individual exhibit component, the designer also needs to focus on the overall experience. Considerations need to be taken into vantage points (what do you see from where both inside and outside the gallery as well as the inside and outside the Museum as well), what is the build up to the exhibit experience, how does the visitor flow from one part of the gallery to the next, how can a clear hierarchy be established through anchoring elements. Much of the design process happens in my head–a visualization of the entire gallery evolving over time based on inputs from the various players as well as my own creative imagination. The details are refined through both models and sketches that can then be communicated to the core team. Feedback is given and the design evolves yet again.

Q. How long does it take you to sketch an exhibit? How long does it take you to build a model?

A. Sketching and model building have two roles: part of the actual design thinking process and also as a communication tool–a way to present your idea to the team. Sketches and models can take from a few seconds (napkin sketch) to several hours (presentation sketch). I do small sketches to work out design ideas, but then often rely on models for team presentations. I find that people understand models much more effectively than sketches or even computer renderings. An actual physical model can be nicely situated in the center of the conference table for everyone to congregate around at the same time to view and discuss. I always bring glue, scissors and extra mat board to the meetings, so that changes can be tried on the fly. Pieces of the model are never glued down so they can be arranged in different variations. This involves everyone in the design process. Physical models can also be picked up and viewed from the perspective of the actual visitor. This gives a clear idea of what can be seen from the entries, exits, exteriors, upper level. One can visualize what is seen from a particular vantage point and what is revealed through movement in the gallery.

Q. Can you tell me how you created the model of the Mammoth Discovery! exhibit gallery?

A. We built the existing gallery shell first. It was critical to include the exterior wall of the building and a generous portion of the outside plaza, so the interplay and connections between inside and outside could be adequately explored. We also built the second floor balcony and main stairwell (removable elements) so that all of the possible views into the gallery could be thoughtfully considered. These were constructed out of foam board on a solid plywood base. The scale had to be large enough to accommodate the details of the design, but small enough to fit through doorways and down hallways. The ½” scale that we decided upon just barely fit these criteria.

As the design takes shape, white model elements are built and placed into the gallery model. When material textures or elements are refined, these are applied onto the model. In essence as the design of exhibit is refined, so is the model in real time.

Q. What tools or products do you use to create models?

A. I am a big advocate of reuse and recycling. CDM is the fortunate recipient of many scrap art materials including a big supply of extras from a framing company. I therefore build most of my models out of mat board or foam board. Everything is cut by hand with a snap-off blade utility knife and assembled with either artist tape or white glue. If something is transparent or translucent, I try to illustrate this effect by using materials that have these same qualities. As the design progresses, I’ll printout textures (wood, stone, soil, etc.) and graphics and apply them to the model surfaces. Overall the kit of tools and materials is simple, but possibilities are endless.

Q. During exhibit development, how do sketches and models change over time and what influences these changes?

A. As the design progresses from a rough concept to a detailed design, the sketches and models change to reflect this progress. One example is the jump in scale. The first model or sketches may be at 1/8″ scale or bubble diagrams where the massing, clustering and flow is being explored. The models would be white and blocky. As the design is developed, the scale might be increased to ½” or for specific pieces even larger. More details can be applied as these design decisions are finalized such as textures, graphics and even trim details.

Q. Can you describe one of these changes for the Mammoth Discovery! exhibit?

A. Much of the design was done in preparation for the Prototype Labs where the focus was on the creation of individual components (for testing purposes), so the overall design progressed as a floor plan to explore the relationships between these elements. The floor plan started as mostly a bubble diagram at 1/8″ scale. We moved different masses around to establish possible circulation patterns through the gallery. Over time, the floor plan got larger from ¼” and culminating with the ½” model that defined the overall concept design for the exhibit.

Q. How did you become an exhibit designer?

A. I started out studying architecture and simply loved it. At my university, the emphasis was on strong conceptual design and really pushing the boundaries of what was possible. When I graduated I found myself drawing bathrooms, ramps and parking lots in an architecture firm. It was a far cry from the creative projects at school. As I sat drafting day after day, I thought to myself, I could possibly do this for a year or two, but not as a long term career. One day I stood up from my desk and walked over to my supervisor. I was surprisingly honest and direct with him about my dissatisfaction with the profession. He mentioned a friend how worked at a design firm (he couldn’t recall exactly what it was) that had a similar creative spirit like myself. These were in the days when not every firm had a website. I wasn’t even sure what type of design they focused on. I was invited in for an interview and discovered they were exhibit designers, a field I never knew existed and I ended up working there and as an exhibit designer ever since.

Q. Do you consider yourself more of an artist or an architect and why?

A. This is a great question. I firmly see myself as a designer. I believe that artists pursue their own visions, their own creations. Designers help others communicate their message. I may be part of the creative development team, but in the end I see the exhibit designer’s role as helping a museum express their mission through the exhibit.

Q. What was your role on the Lupe team?

A. I was the designer on the team. It was challenging at first because a great deal had been invested in the grant proposal that was developed by another designer and developer and many of the members still on the core team. Coming in late in the project meant navigating between what led the project to this point and charting new directions for where it could go. I would say that Sara and I were the key players in the actual transformation of the exhibit from ideas to physical form. I deeply appreciated being given these responsibilities and also for the guidance and feedback from the other members of the group. I think the overall exhibit is richer and more effective in the end because of the diverse individuals of the team.

Q. What was your favorite part about working with the Mammoth Discovery! exhibit?

A. I loved the Prototype Labs. Many museums do prototypes but not the depth and extent of ones created for Mammoth Discovery!. It was a great opportunity to try new ideas and experiment. Changes could be made instantaneously and the effect of those changes be observed just as quickly. It was an excellent forum for gathering feedback not only from the museum visitors, but the cohorts and advisors of the project as well. The prototypes allowed the design to more fully evolve and transform into its final form.

Q. Do you have a favorite exhibit? If so, which one and why?

A. I was only able to be involved with the exhibition until after Prototype Lab 2, so I’m not sure which exhibits made the cut. Personally I really liked the fossil sifter table. It was simple and engaging and I was most surprised by the different ways, different aged children interacted with it. It is a challenge to create an exhibit that is both educational with open ended and I felt this one really succeeded on both levels.

Q. Now that you are working at the Smithsonian, how is designing for this Museum different than designing exhibits for a children’s museum?

A. The difference between designing exhibits for the Smithsonian versus CDM are less than one would think. There is a trend of traditional museums modeling their exhibit design and development after children’s museums — multi-sensory, immersive, accessible to all ages, so the design considerations are quite similar. The biggest difference would be the specific restrictions imposed when displaying artifacts. The designer needs to incorporate both conservation and security requirements to all exhibit components.

Q. What do you believe is the most important part of exhibit design?

A. I may have answered this in an earlier question. Exhibit designers need to transform the content and ideas of an exhibit into a physical tangible experience.

Q. What do you find the most challenging and what do you find to be the most rewarding part about designing exhibits?

A. Exhibit designers need to be able to capture the vision and ideas of the content developers and create an engaging experience. Content developers often try to be overly ambitious with the amount of information an exhibit can convey. One of the most challenging things is convincing others, including oneself that the simplest solution is usually the best and most effective. It is a challenge to help others understand that simple does not mean simplistic. The most rewarding part is watching children and family actively engaging with something you designed. When their eyes sparkle with wonder and delight, it is the most amazing feeling ever.

Q. Is there something you wish to share about your story, either with CDM or the Mammoth Discovery! exhibit in general that has not been covered yet?

A. It was great to have been part of this amazing project. I followed in the footsteps of those who came before me and now that I have been gone for nearly a year, it will be exciting to see how it has evolved since my departure.