Lead Evaluators: Judah Leblang and Joan Karp
Associates: Susan Cohen, Elsa Bailey
Funders: National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Abstract: Cosmic Questions is an interactive 5000 square-foot exhibition, developed by staff at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), to promote reflection about and interest in “big questions” about the universe and humanity’s place in the cosmos, along with providing the most up-to-date information about the universe. Through their experiences in the exhibit gallery and at a series of related activities—a a short play, a staff demonstration, and a planetarium show—visitors are encouraged to construct meaning and to find relevance in relation to their own world views and life experiences.
Cosmic Questions was framed around three “big questions:”
- “What is the universe like?”
- “Was there a beginning to time?”
- “Where do we fit in?”
In this context, the exhibition had four major goals for its viewers, as described in project literature:
- Learn about key astronomical and scientific concepts, including:
- The composition of the universe and its vast scales of space and time
- The physical and analytical tools of the astronomer; learning from light
- The interplay of models, evidence and explanation in forming our understanding of the universe
- Increase their understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry by engaging in activities that explore “how we know” about the universe.
- Encounter various human perspectives (historical, personal, cultural, artistic, etc.) on age-old cosmic questions.
- Reflect upon their own ideas about the universe and the meaning and relevancy of the ongoing human search for answers to cosmic questions.
Evaluation Activities and methods:
PERG’s evaluation consisted of 3 phases. In 2000, evaluators conducted a series of front-end interviews at Boston’s Museum of Science (MOS), to determine visitors’ interest in and reaction to questions such as: “Are you interested in new discoveries about the universe?” and “Do you have a mental picture of the universe?”
Based on our findings, the exhibit developers created a scaled-down prototype exhibit at the Museum of Science in spring 2001. PERG evaluators collected extensive data at the MOS, and produced a formative report, which proved useful in the creation of the full exhibition.
The summative evaluation of Cosmic Questions was conducted between from September 2002 to June 2003. The evaluators collected data at 2 sites: Boston’s Museum of Science and the Midland Center for the Arts in Midland, Michigan.
Evaluation methods included:
- Exit interviews with museum visitors
- Follow up phone interviews about 1 week after the museum visit
- Survey of visitors who attended the related play “Boy Meets Girl”
- Survey of visitors who attended the related planetarium show
- Interactive observations, in which evaluators accompanied visitors on their trip through the exhibition
Key Findings: Visitors to Cosmic Questions generally found the exhibit highly engaging. They reported learning new information about the universe, and reflected on the ‘big questions’ embedded in Cosmic Questions. Almost two-thirds of our respondents said they had questions stimulated by the exhibit, and more than 60% said Cosmic Questions helped them think about their place in the universe.
Report: Cosmic Questions