Children interact with the experiments at the Interactive Research Pod in the Brain Zone Gallery at the Centre for Life.

University researchers in cultural evolution and child development are steadily gaining new insights into the intricacies of children’s reasoning and scientific thinking. At the same time, there has been increased recognition of the important role that visits to informal learning institutions, like science centres, play in supporting science learning. Traditionally, academic research and science centre practice typically unfold independently with different aims, objectives and methods. The disconnect between these activities can make it difficult to identify meaningful intersections between academic research and educational practice in informal settings.

Researchers at Durham University and science educators at the UK’s Centre for Life are working together to blur the boundary between research and practice. In this project we document and discuss a multi-disciplinary partnership between university researchers and science centre practitioners, which is resulting in the co-production of science exhibits which are intended to enhance creativity, innovation and scientific thinking in those that interact with them. Of particular interest for the project is consideration of how engaging with informal educators influences the research process, and how engaging with researchers influences the work of informal educators. A complementary focus is on the cutting edge process of designing exhibits for creativity and innovation in scientific thinking when they are co-produced by researchers and science centre practitioners in informal learning settings.

The Durham University researchers have developed insight into how humans learn novel tasks and the importance of social transmission, including cumulative culture (Dean et al., 2012); the study of social transmission in naturalistic contexts (Kendal et al., 2010) and the trade offs made between learning from others and individual innovation (Wood et al., 2013; Carr et al. 2015); how social and environmental factors (Flynn et al., 2013) play a significant role in influencing the tendency to learn for oneself (and potentially innovate) or copy others; and quantitative methods to identify signatures of social learning and innovation in informal learning environments (Kendal et al., 2009). The balance between accepting information from another, versus testing hypotheses for oneself, through creative exploration, is at the heart of the scientific enterprise (Feynman, 1969). From this base of knowledge, the researchers are keen to further examine how individuals learn in informal learning environments. The particular focus of the experiments in the exhibit will look for factors that influence the tendency of an individual to solve problems by copying others or by experimenting, innovating and testing their own novel and creative solutions. The researchers will also investigate the nature of research, participation, engagement, and creativity possibilities that can be provided by digital technology (Ross et al., 2013). In tandem, the practitioners from Centre for Life are keen to apply recent psychological, anthropological, education, and design theory to exhibit design, as well as experimenting with whether novel digital information systems could become resilient research tools. Together, we are aligning research and practice objectives and through a process of co-producing exhibits, exploring what we can learn from each other.

The team at a design workshop, developing the experiments and Interactive Exhibit Pod through a process of Participatory Action Research.

Through a process of participatory action research (PAR), the team worked in a participative and engaged approach. Over 2015, the team held a number of design workshops and meetings. At them, they applied both academic theory and craft practice to iteratively prototype novel interactive exhibit designs specifically to encourage creativity and innovation (Rudman et al., 2015). A key focus was also ensuring creativity and innovation could be measured accurately. The new exhibit, an Interactive Research Pod which has resulted from this co-design and participatory action research process has formed part of theBrain Zone exhibition, which opened at the Centre in spring 2016. In the Brain Zone, visitors can find out how scientists explore the brain’s inner workings and take part in live experiments that reveal some of its capabilities.