VSA e-Newsletter

January 2011

Dear VSA Member,

Welcome to the first VSA e-Newsletter of 2011, which highlights many exciting new directions at VSA. One of those is new leadership for the e-News; with the March issue, Amy Niedbalski will take the reins as editor.

For over four years, it has been my honor and delight to lead the e-News team. I am grateful to the VSA staff (Randy Roberts, Sarah Cohn and now Erik Ledbetter), leadership (Alan Friedman, Kathleen McLean, and Kirsten Ellenbogen), and writers (Dorothy Chen-Courtin, Daryl Fischer, Rhea Gavounas, Pino Monaco, Amy Niedbalski, and Melissa Wadman) with whom I’ve worked. I’m very pleased to turn the e-News over to Amy’s capable and innovative hands, and look forward to joining the readership!

Below, you will find links to the newsletter articles, available on the VSA web site. As always, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions: please contact us at info@visitorstudies.org with your ideas.

Jenny Heim


From Our VSA President Kirsten Ellenbogen
Director of Evaluation and Research in Learning, Science Museum of Minnesota

Dear VSA members,

Hopefully you are having a warmer January than I am here in Minnesota. As I warm myself by the glow of my laptop, I want to take a moment to look back on all that VSA has achieved in the last 12 months, and highlight some of the most exciting initiatives we will undertake in 2011.

At this time last year, we were just on the brink of two big changes for VSA: adopting a new audience-centered strategic framework and bringing on board our first full-time Executive Director to help us increase our ability to translate strategy into new actions, services, and capabilities. In 2010, we were able to deliver on both of these opportunities for change and growth.

In March, the Board approved a strategic framework that challenges VSA to maintain and further develop our core services to practitioners of visitor studies, but also expand the impact of our work by developing new ways to share the results of research and evaluation with funders, CEOs, and policy makers. And in April, Erik Ledbetter joined us as Executive Director, tasked with three primary responsibilities: strengthening resource development, managing the vital work of the Board and Committees, and leading implementation of our new strategic vision.

During the second half of the year, Erik facilitated the Board through a planning process to translate our vision into concrete actions. The resulting Operational Plan was approved by the Board at the December 2010 meeting. Erik will share some highlights of the plan with you in his letter, but I do want to share with you three vignettes from one week in December which underscore the new scale of VSA's impact on the field.

On December 13 and 14, VSA Board member Rick Bonney, Erik Ledbetter, and I sat at a table with other leaders from eight large-scale web-based projects, funded by NSF, to improve the infrastructure and impact of informal learning environments. The group was able to agree on ambitious, shared goals and activities that will coordinate our work and better serve informal learning environments. The results of the meeting were so promising that our NSF program officers who were invited to attend the last two hours of the meeting spoke about the entire field being at a tipping point, on the brink of a new level of professional maturity.

On December 15, the VSA Board participated in an exceptionally efficient online meeting in which we achieved a balanced budget for 2011, and created significant changes to the way our organization will communicate and develop resources as we move forward. You will learn more about this in two Committee Spotlights in this issue, announcing our new Communications Committee and Development Committee.

On December 16, I participated in a meeting of the CAISE Thought Center, the group of PIs and project advisors who lead the work of the project. At that meeting, we completed the booklet of activities underway for this year and submitted it to NSF. VSA’s ambitious plans have been enthusiastically encouraged within CAISE and at NSF.

This extraordinary week is the result of a year (or more!) of your hard work. None of our achievements in 2010 would have been possible without the work of our outstanding volunteers who make up six committees, three task forces, one resource group, one local host committee, one Board of Directors, and one Executive Committee. These groups are made up of more than 60 VSA members and 24 board members, including eight officers.

If we can achieve this much impact on visitor studies in one week of 2010, imagine what we can do for the field in 2011.

Warmest wishes,


From the VSA Executive Director, Erik Ledbetter
Highlights of Our 2011 Plan

Dear VSA members,

For the past six months, an Operations Planning Working Group has been meeting to look over the full range of potential actions set out in our strategic planning, and winnow them down to specific steps we intend to take and goals we intend to achieve in 2011. I'm pleased to report that the VSA Board of Directors approved the proposed 2011 VSA Operations Plan at their December meeting. I want to share with you some of the highlights of this plan, and give you a sense of the new initiatives we will undertake.

At the center of VSA's strategic guidance is our expanded definition of our audiences adopted by the Board in March 2010. This Audience Framework defines who VSA must reach in order to accomplish its mission. Our strategy identifies five key audiences:

* Those who study visitors and/or learning in informal settings
* Developers, designers, and implementers of informal learning experiences
* CEOs, Directors, and upper-level managers of informal learning organizations
* Funders    
* Educational policy makers and advisors

The first two of these audiences, evaluators and developers, are our core constituency. Many things VSA already does and does well for these audiences: providing professional development workshops focused on evaluation methods, sponsoring an excellent peer-reviewed journal, and hosting an exciting annual conference at which evaluators and implementers share data, discoveries, and best practices. All these remain priorities for 2011. However, the planning process also identified gaps in our portfolio of services even for our core audiences. Where there's a gap, there's an opportunity to do better.  

For example, exhibit designers, informal learning project PIs, and others often contact the VSA office seeking help locating the right evaluator. Presently, we can do little more than point them to the VSA List and the evaluator profiles on informalscience.org. Accordingly, in the first half of 2011, we will develop a new service on the VSA web site, which is a “find an evaluator database”. Contract and staff evaluators available to conduct outside engagements will be able to create profiles on the VSA web site, and link them to other resources like informalscience.org profiles and evaluation reports. People seeking help with evaluation will be able to query the database to find evaluators by a number of criteria, including region, discipline, and type of engagement.

In addition to new services for our core audience, the planning process made it clear that VSA presently has very limited capabilities to deliver information and resources to our other three audiences -- CEOs, funders, and senior policy makers. To reach these audiences, we realized we needed new capabilities and new products. Accordingly, we are launching a new VSA Communications Committee. To learn more about it, its role in our plan, and how you can get involved, see the Communications Committee spotlight in this issue.

Finally, the Operations Plan also identifies the resources we need to undertake these and other new initiatives in 2011. In doing so, it became clear we would have to expand our sources of support to achieve our goals.  To this end, the Board has rechartered the former Resource Development Committee as the VSA Development Committee, a new group with an expanded mandate. Unlike the former RDC, which focused largely on conference sponsorship, the new Development Committee will work closely with the ED to improve our relationships with donors and advertisers, and develop mechanisms for them to support VSA that meet their needs and interests. It will also nurture new grant proposals to enable us to create additional services in the future. To learn more, see the Development Committee spotlight in this issue.

This is just a taste of what's in store for 2011. I look forward to sharing more in my next letter.  As always, I look forward to your comments and feedback.



News You Can Use
By Erik Ledbetter, VSA Executive Director

VSA Regional Workshops: March in Seattle

In spring 2011, VSA brings its popular regional workshop series to the Pacific Northwest on Friday, March 25, with three new offerings as well as an exciting lunch with informal learning thought leader John Falk:

Talking to Your Evaluator So That You Get the Information You Need
9 a.m. - 11:45 a.m.
Presenters: Julie McNalley, Ph.D. - Evaluation Manager, Pacific Science Center; Lauren Russell, Project Coordinator - David Heil and Associates, Inc.

Description: This workshop is geared toward Museum program and exhibit staff who want to improve their ability to use evaluation. Learn how you can collaborate effectively with internal and external evaluators. The workshop will incorporate best practice in evaluation communication, and group activities allowing participants to practice scenarios involving articulating program and exhibit goals, identifying appropriate methods of assessment and the opportunity to discuss and critique evaluation plans.  Click here for more information.

Making Informal Learning Experiences Meaningful For Young Audiences
9 a.m. - 11:45 a.m.
Presenter: Stephanie Lile - Head of Education, Washington State History Museum (WSHM)

Description: Making learning experiences meaningful for your audience is a challenge all museum professionals face. But for our younger visitors, it's not just text, images, exhibitry, and objects that help kids engage and retain knowledge--it's a complete experience that must be planned and envisioned from the conceptual stage. Participants in this workshop will address the principles and practices of Visitor Studies and informal learning environments to gain strategies for planning and evaluating experiences that include BOTH exhibit and program; for appealing to audiences of varying ages; and for using educational techniques to increase audience retention rates.  Click here for more information.

Brownbag lunch (free to all workshop participants)
12:15 p.m. - 1:15 p.m.
Keynote discussion with John Falk, Ph.D., on current trends and research projects, identity and the museum visitor, informal learning environments and evaluation. 

Using Design Studio Pedagogy to Creatively Model and Understand Visitor Experiences
1:30 p.m. - 4:15 p.m.
Presenters: Iain Robertson - Professor of Landscape Architecture; Leslie Rupert Herrenkohl - Associate Professor in the Learning Sciences and Human Development and Cognition Programs; Julie Johnson - Associate Professor in Landscape Architecture; all at University of Washington

Description: Design studio pedagogy is a method of project-based education in which students develop effective designs using personal and cultural resources combined in new and innovative ways. This workshop adapts studio education methods to explore problems and issues commonly confronted by the designers, curators, education and research specialists, and users of museum exhibits. Workshop participants will engage in short, focused design explorations, using methods such as model-making, drawing, and writing, followed by discussions, presentations, and critique periods. .  Click here for more information.

Registration is open now! Click here for details.


2011 VSA Annual Conference

The 2011 Visitor Studies Association Conference will be held at the historic Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. Pre-conference workshops take place on Saturday and Sunday, July 23 and 24. The conference opens with an evening event on Sunday, July 24, and continues through the closing luncheon on Wednesday, July 27. Click here for more information about the conference.

April Award and Student Scholarships

The April Award helps VSA members who are new to the field attend their first Visitor Studies Association conference. The April Award consists of a complimentary conference registration fee and a $500 travel stipend.

Rebekah Sobel, the 2010 April Award recipient, describes the impact the award and her first VSA Conference:

“I gained both inspiration and validation. I met new people, reconnected with a few familiar faces, and had the opportunity to see in action many of the individuals with whom I have spoken on the phone and via email. I felt extremely welcome and honestly amazed at the support network I was not aware existed. I can now see the wide-open collegial doors to this fascinating and exciting field. I felt camaraderie with very inspiring, real people who face challenges similar to mine.”

The Student Scholarship Program promotes student participation in VSA. A limited number of Student Scholarships are available to student members of VSA to help them attend their first VSA conference. The Student Scholarship consists of a complimentary conference registration fee.

Applications for both the April Award and Student Scholarships must be submitted on or before March 1, 2011. For more information, contact Kathleen Tinworth at ktinworth@dmns.org. Click here to apply.

Conference Sponsorship

VSA thanks past conference sponsors for enabling the Association to provide conference attendees with more resources and increased access to ideas and information. We invite you to consider becoming a sponsor of the 2011 Annual Conference. Through our new Development Committee, we are looking forward to working with our sponsors to design custom benefits and recognition that meet each sponsor's needs, and enable you to reach the 500-plus delegates to this joint meeting of VSA, the Association of Midwest Museums, and the Illinois Association of Museums.  If your organization would like to support the 2011 conference, please contact Caren Oberg at oberg@obergresearch.com for more information.


Plan to Participate in Museums Advocacy Day 2011!

Museums Advocacy Day 2011 will take place in Washington, DC on February 28 and March 1, 2011 and the entire museum field is invited to participate! Museum advocates and professionals from across the nation will convene in Washington, DC, to learn about the issues, hear from experts, and learn how to effectively communicate with your elected officials. Visit www.speakupformuseums.org for more information.

VSA Committee Spotlight: Communications Committee
by By Rick Bonney, Director of Program Development & Evaluation, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

For two decades, VSA has sought new ways to share information among those who practice visitor studies and those who use our work to create more robust informal learning environments. Under the leadership of VSA's Publications Committee and Membership Committee, we've built a diverse portfolio of communications channels, from print to Web to interactive. These include: a robust peer-reviewed journal, a resource-rich web site, a lively e-newsletter, and a professional, members-only listserv.  

However, new technologies and platforms for communication are proliferating ever more rapidly, and professional conversations are moving and changing in response. Social media has already become a preferred mode of interaction among many younger professionals, along with a fair number of not-so-young ones. Wikis and other community-created content systems offer a way to crowdsource and continually improve professional resources. VSA needs to explore these technologies and implement the ones that can improve research, practice, and communication within our field. We also have an Operations Plan that challenges us to communicate what we know about visitors and the power of informal learning environments to new audiences, including CEOs, funders such as foundation executives, and policy makers at all levels of government. To reach these new audiences, VSA requires new ways of communicating.

For all these reasons, the VSA Board has chartered and launched a new standing committee: the VSA Communications Committee. This committee will build on the outstanding work of its predecessors, the Publications Committee and the Marketing and Public Relations Resource Group. However, its mandate is broader than either: The Board has challenged the committee to be responsible for compelling delivery of information about the Association, as well as content about the overall field of visitor studies, to members as well as the broader visitor studies community. Kirsten Ellenbogen has asked me to chair this new committee.

To meet our ambitious charge, the Communications Committee will organize into three subcommittees focused on: 1) Website and Publications - VSA web site and e-Newsletter, 2) Interactive Media - wikis, interactive newsletters, and social media, and 3) Strategic Communications - white papers, research briefs, position papers, and news releases. The first two subcommittees focus on VSA members who study visitors and develop, design, and implement informal learning experiences. The third subcommittee will develop the content and delivery mechanisms that we need to speak to upper-level managers of informal learning organizations, funders, and policy makers. In addition, the Communications Committee has oversight for the Association’s journal, Visitor Studies.

To move forward rapidly, we need passion, skill, insight, talent, and effort – all in large amounts. The Communications Committee inherits a great core of people from the Publications Committee and the Marketing and Public Relations Resource Group. But our field of action is now larger, so opportunities to get involved are correspondingly great. Have you been involved in implementing social media in your organization? Do you have ideas about how VSA could make better use of its web site, reorganize existing content, keep it fresh, and make it more interactive? Do you have insight in how to successfully interact with funders and policy makers? If so, we need your help! To get involved, email Rick Bonney at rickbonney@cornell.edu or Erik Ledbetter at info@visitorstudies.org. We look forward to hearing from you!

VSA Committee Spotlight: Development Committee
By Caren Oberg, Principal, Oberg Research

The VSA Resource Development Committee is relaunching in January 2011 under a new identity, the VSA Development Committee. The Development Committee has a broad mandate: to develop, oversee, and execute strategies to generate financial support across the breadth of VSA's strategic agenda. This is an exciting new vision for VSA's development efforts, and we have ambitious goals for new initiatives and services to reach all of our audiences.  

The Development Committee seeks nothing less than a new relationship with the full range of our supporters. We recognize that our members and friends support VSA for a variety of reasons. Some of our supporters are most excited by our professional development work, others by our efforts to nurture new and emerging professionals, and others by our new emphasis on communicating the importance of visitor studies to policymakers and senior leaders in informal learning. There are also entities which support VSA because they seek to build a relationship with our members in order to promote products and services of value to the field. Finally, there are grant-making organizations which are willing to invest with us to accomplish specific projects of mutual value. We need to offer relationships suited to the needs and interests of each of these communities.

And that's where you come in. VSA’s development work is a cross-disciplinary responsibility in which all informal learning researchers and practitioners can play a roll. The new Development Committee has three subcommittees: Donors, Advertisers, and Grants. Randi Korn is leading the Donor subcommittee and developing new opportunities for individuals to give to VSA to support the work they deem most critical. I am leading the Advertiser sub-committee and am looking for help to create new ways for commercial sponsors to reach VSA members to our mutual benefit. Finally, if you are a senior practitioner with experience writing and leading grants, we invite you to join the Grants subcommittee. The Grants subcommittee will cultivate VSA’s relationship with existing funders, and reach out to new ones related to art museums, children’s museums, history museums, and science-based learning environments.

We need your help. What's more, we want to help you apply your existing skills and to develop new ones. To join the Development Committee, email Caren Oberg at oberg@obergresearch.com or Erik Ledbetter at info@visitorstudies.org.

Research in the Field
By Giuseppe "Pino" Monaco, Education Outcomes Manager, Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies

In this issue, Loran Carleton Parker and Gerald H. Krockover from Purdue University, present their research on interaction patterns among members of family groups during visits to a community zoo.

If you know of a current research project we should highlight, please send your ideas to monacop@si.edu.

Interaction Patterns among Members of Family Groups during Visits to a Community Zoo
by Loran Carleton Parker, Discovery Learning Research Center, and Gerald H. Krockover, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Purdue University

In the past thirty years, American zoos have broadened their traditional missions of conservation and recreation to include science education (Association of Zoos and Aquariums, 2009). Consequently, zoos have created exhibits that more closely represent natural habitats with the goal of having lasting impact on visitors’ knowledge of conservation science (Falk et. al., 2007).

This research is part of a larger study (Parker, 2009) that explored family interactions at a zoo in the process of such modernization, and provided an opportunity to describe and compare family learning behaviors at both modern and traditional exhibits.

During a single summer, the multiple visits of four family groups to a small community zoo were observed and video recorded. Interviews were conducted immediately following each visit, during which the group was asked to describe their visit in terms of what they saw, did, and learned. From the video observations, we isolated significant science learning events (Ash, 2002) that contained explanation or analysis as defined by Crowley and colleagues (2001). We transcribed these events verbatim, cataloged the resources used by families during each event (e.g., text, observation of animal or enclosure, visitor prior knowledge, staff interaction, interaction with objects), and analyzed the discourse of these events using a functional framework that included the roles of family members and the goals or purposes of each utterance (Hymes, 1972).  Finally, we categorized the science learning events as primarily parent-directed or collaborative, and examined the distribution of each type of event across exhibits.

The distribution indicated that the modern exhibits supported more science learning events (65 vs. 38), but that these events were more likely to be parent-directed in nature (68%).  While the older exhibits, built primarily of concrete and chain-link fence, supported fewer science learning events, these events were more collaborative in nature (58%). The two types of exhibits produced similar total numbers of collaborative science learning events (21 for new vs. 22 for old).  Future work will examine the topics and learning outcomes of science learning events at each exhibit type and assess their correspondence to the zoo’s goals for visitor learning.


Ash, D. (2002). Negotiations of Thematic Conversations About Biology. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.) Learning conversations in museums (pp. 357-400). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Association of Zoos and Aquariums (2009). The Accreditation Standards and Related Policies. http://www.aza.org/accreditation. Accessed March 3, 2009.

Crowley, K., Callanan, M. A., Jipson, J. L., Galco, J., Topping, K. & Shrager, J. (2001). Shared scientific thinking in everyday parent-child activity. Science Education, 85(6), 712-732.

Falk, J.H., Reinhard, E.M., Vernon, C.L., Bronnenkant, K., Heimlich, J.E., & Deans, N.L. (2007). Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit to a Zoo or Aquarium. Silver Spring, Maryland: Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Hymes, D. (1972). Models of the Interaction of Language and the Social Life. In, Gumperz & Hymes (Eds.) Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication (pp. 35-71). New York: Holt, Reinhardt and Winston.

Parker, L.C. (2009). The Use of Zoo Exhibits by Family Groups to Learn Science. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

Interview of the Month: David Ucko
By Dorothy Chen-Courtin, President, Marketing & Management Associates for Nonprofits

This month we talk with David Ucko, 2010 VSA conference discussant and President, Museums + more LLC. Find our how David creates groundbreaking educational experiences and attractions, and learn why informal science education is at the "tipping point" to reverse the poor statistics of American schoolchildren’s achievement in science and math.

Name: David Ucko

Current position: President, Museums + more LLC

Education: B.A. in chemistry, Columbia; Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry, M.I.T.

Brief career track: Assistant Professor, City University of New York; Associate Professor, Antioch College; Vice President, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago; Deputy Director, California Museum of Science and Industry; President, Science City at Union Station/Kansas City Museum; Executive Director, Koshland Science Museum; Section Head, Informal Science Education, NSF; Division Director (acting), Division of Research on Learning, NSF

VSA: Please describe some of the groundbreaking educational experiences and attractions you have created.

David Ucko:
Perhaps the most prominent example is Science City at Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri. Opened in 1999, it was designed as total immersion into a “city”. The experience takes visitors into over 50 settings, such as under the street, up a high-rise under construction, onto a science-themed mini-golf course, and into a crime lab. Rather than exhibits per se, each themed environment contains interactive elements, props, and a goal-oriented “adventure” intended to foster learning about the science that surrounds us. Educational programming is integrated into the city through city “events” and costumed characters, such as the ice cream vendor who involved visitors with cryogenics. Visitor surveys indicated that average stay time was more than three hours.

Some earlier examples come from Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry in the mid-1980s. Technology: Chance or Choice? was an exhibition on 20th century technological developments that had great social or personal impact, such as nuclear energy, television, and the birth control pill. It took the position, provocative at the time, that technology can be a double-edged sword, highlighting the trade-offs or unanticipated consequences along with the benefits. It also represented an early use of computers in exhibits by allowing visitors to select a quote representing their perspective on each technology and to compare their choices with others. Another example was the traveling exhibition My Daughter, the Scientist, which addressed the underrepresentation of women in science and technology, by introducing visitors to the life stories of diverse female role models, as well as the social barriers they overcame. It was followed by Black Achievers in Science with a similar aim.

VSA: Tell us about your approach to developing these experiences.

David Ucko: My goal has always been to create experiences that stimulate learning in ways that could not readily take place at home or school. The process is both top down and bottom up, starting with “big ideas”, but also particular aspects that seem most interesting and relevant. That's similar to the way I approached writing my chemistry textbooks, but with the addition of searching for resources and experiences that makes the content come alive. It's critical to try to put yourself into the mind of visitors who may know little or nothing about the subject, and to find ways to encourage them to want to learn more. I'm a fan of immersion experiences because they have the potential to create an emotionally engaging and memorable context. Typically, I have used multiple approaches to reach target audiences in complementary ways, such as hands-on, authentic experiences, artifacts, audio-visual, images, and text. I've always tried to make science less intimidating through humor, such as the video in the Everyday Chemistry exhibition of Julia Child preparing primordial soup and Tom Lehrer singing “The Elements” as accompaniment to a large Periodic Table.

VSA: Nanoscale science and technology represent an exciting aspect of current scientific research. Please tell us about the role of the Nanotechnology Informal Science Education Network.

David Ucko: NISE Net is one of the NSF initiatives of which I'm most proud. It was created to address this important emerging area by linking nano researchers with informal science educators. But perhaps more importantly, it has established a national infrastructure of science centers and museums that work together in developing and testing programs, exhibit elements and other open source resources. It pioneered new types of programming, such as adult forums on the societal impact of technology. The collaborative process among NISE Net members avoids “reinventing the wheel,” improves the products being developed, and provides professional staff development. There's also a strong research and evaluation component, which adds to our understanding of how to deal with difficult concepts, as well as builds capacity of the institutions involved.

VSA: We keep hearing dismal statistics about American children falling behind in math and science. What role can informal science education play in reversing that trend?

David Ucko: The key role that informal learning can play is now beginning to be recognized more widely. For a variety of reasons, informal science education is reaching a “tipping point” in this regard. One factor has been the National Research Council study Learning Science in Informal Environments. I encouraged the NRC to pursue this project because the field needed an up-to-date synthesis and analysis of the research underlying informal learning, both as a guide for practitioners and as a foundation for future studies. But even more importantly, it needed the credibility of the National Academies to state, based on evidence, what has been obvious to those in the field for some time—that significant learning occurs in informal settings and that it has particular strengths, the potential to stimulate interest, and to encourage identity development. The trick is to create effective learning environments that draw from what we know from educational research and practice in both formal and informal settings, along with technologies that make learning possible anytime, anyplace. One of my last initiatives at NSF was to create a new program, Transforming STEM Learning, designed to encourage innovative thinking along these lines.

VSA: Thank you for sharing your fascinating work with our VSA readers!

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