Rethinking Dinos at the Zoo

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Disclaimer: this dino is NOT at a zoo. It’s a photo I took at the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles County in November 2005.

I’ve often complained about dinosaur exhibits at zoos, and various other “entertainment” attractions in museums, zoos and aquariums.  Today I’ve had to rethink that.

I’ve always found good in education for education’s sake.  It was COOL to know stuff, fun to engage in scientific inquiry, better than a movie to go to a museum.  But I also recognize that while science was “nerdy” when I was a kid, to some kids today it’s absolutely a dirty word.

Sure, there are still some kids who know STEM is cool, but there are a lot who roll their eyes when you mention education, and who would rather sit and play video games than to go learn about animals and their habitats.

And in many cases, the only thing they get from zoos and museums is “wow, that was cool”.  But at least that’s a seed.  It’s a start.  And some kids will go home and say “wow, that was cool.  I wonder…” and it’s the “I wonder” part that starts things moving.

One of the things I like a lot about the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is that kids find it FUN, they find it exciting. But there are no dinosaurs, no VR experiences, no costumed characters.  There is, I believe, a way to communicate science that is in itself engaging.  But you have to bring them in.  With Cabrillo, it’s a long history of this kind of engaging educational experience, something kids hear from their parents, how they said “wow” when they went all those years ago.

And for small places like CMA, where you have that high amount of contact between docents and the public, especially the kids, this works really well, and has great outcomes.

On the other hand, I’m beginning to see these large venues and very new educational venues where that relationship isn’t established, or isn’t possible.  In some cases, these are places where people will come once in their life, or once a year when they’re on vacation, and there’s this sense of competition with other, flasher venues.  So if you want to reach them, even if it’s just the “WOW” stage, the stage where they’ll consider coming back and perhaps moving on to the “I wonder” stage, there has to be some sort of immediate incentive.

I joke sometimes when there’s no parking outside of a government office. I say “They must be giving out donuts”  Because, obviously, no one would go to a government office without some incentive, right?

So donuts, dinosaurs, VR experiences, free tickets, rides,  and even “walk through” locations are incentives to go.

“Program enabling elements” I heard them called.  Because “program enabling elements” allow “program embodiment elements” to happen.  You can’t share information with someone who isn’t there, no matter how interesting, fun, or useful that information is.

Dinosaurs at zoos?  Grudgingly I’ll say “Yeah.  OK.”

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