Why Visitors’ Interaction with Facilitators Beats Signs and Guidebooks

By: Inas Essa

Interaction is such a keyword while looking for success in different life settings. While learning through books, videos, and such could be good for acquiring knowledge, interaction creates a channel between the sender and receiver. Through this channel a flood of information could be better delivered and absorbed, especially with children who are still unable to know their way, literally and metaphorically.

While machines have replaced humans in completing some jobs, humans still have a unique role in creating and accomplishing some tasks, especially those that require interaction to be effectively done. One of these roles where humans beat machines is the facilitator role in a science center or museum. This role cannot be simply delegated to a machine because it has a significant importance in creating a positive effect on the visitors.

The facilitators’ role in enhancing engagement has been repeatedly studied; here, we highlight this role and what makes this role hard to delegate.

The Importance of Interaction in Science Centers

Needless to say, science centers and museums provide visitors with opportunities to learn more about STEM fields and provide them with a meaningful experience, through engagement and fun, outside of formal settings. These free-choice learning spaces offer a non-linear learning journey driven by the learner’s own needs and interests, allowing them to choose when, what, and where to learn.

These informal learning spaces have special characteristics for the educators and facilitators who lead the learning experience in which the learner-centered approach, combined with engagement and real social interactions with other participants, is vital. The interaction between visitors and facilitators goes beyond the limits of delivering concepts and knowledge; sparking enthusiasm, motivation, and feeding interest is also important in this process.



Analyzing the Visitors’ Journey in Science Museums

Visitors’ journey in a science center or museum involves physical interaction with hands-on exhibits, usually as part of a group; yet, this does not create the whole experience.

Research has highlighted the high influence of engagement on the visitor’s experience. Here, the role of facilitators emerges to help visitors explore and discover the physical setting of an exhibit, and create opportunities for social interactions that address the personal context and lead to the making of meaning for the visitor.

This interaction could be easier in such an informal setting that enables and provides the space for unstructured social interactions to occur, whether among individuals in groups of visitors, or between visitors and facilitators.

Interaction Generates Positive Feelings

Research on visitors' learning experience in science centers and museums has demonstrated three key outcomes from facilitators' interaction with visitors:

  1. More positive feelings from the visitors’ side about engaging with museum staff.
  1. Better information acquisition from facilitators than getting it from signs and reading materials.
  1. Learning more frequently through interacting with facilitators.

As these informal entities of STEM learning follow a non-linear approach, measuring the success of a visitors’ journey is not mainly based on cognitive gains It is the conditions, processes, and engagement that are conducive to learning that are much more important.

Based on that, researchers have designed a visitor-based learning tool to analyze the seven discrete learning behaviors visitors show when engaging with exhibits. These are grouped into three categories of engagement that reflect increasing levels of engagement and depth of the learning experience.

  1. Initiation behaviors: This happens when visitors take the first steps in engaging with an exhibit, yet are not completely involved.
  1. Transition behaviors: Are characterized by positive body language and outbursts of emotion that indicate the level of visitor’s engagement and show they are comfortable, able, and willing to engage in the activity.
  1. Breakthrough behaviors: Reflect a commitment on the part of the visitor to fully engage with the learning opportunities provided by the exhibit, besides showing the visitors’ willingness to meaning beyond the purely physical interaction: they build on their previous experience and engage in further exploration and inquiry.



The Impact of Facilitators on Visitors’ Engagement

Studying the role of facilitators in helping visitors go through these stages of engagement has revealed very interesting results. The researchers investigated the impact of visitor-facilitator interactions on visitor engagement and how this interaction would lead to an increase in the number of visitors that reach the highest engagement level: Breakthrough.

Results have shown that the percentage of visitors who interacted with a facilitator vs. those who did not scored better on Initiation, Transition, and reached Breakthrough. Moreover, reaching the breakthrough level was higher when there was interaction between the visitor and facilitator. This interaction is characterized by some behaviors that facilitate the journey for the visitor. These facilitation dimensions are Comfort, Information, Reflection, and Exhibit Use.

Comfort is related to the first step in the visitors’ journey and it is welcoming them into the exhibit space. If visitors feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or unwelcomed, they will hardly engage with exhibits, which would result in a less effective learning experience that turns out challenging for them because their basic needs are not met.

Next comes informing the visitor of how to use the exhibit, using the exhibit alongside them, giving them a tip or a hint, or providing technical assistance. This would lead visitors to spend more time with the exhibit and have a deeper, more meaningful experience by providing technical assistance or explaining how to do it.

Then comes the Reflection Facilitation Dimension, which includes the strategies and techniques used by facilitators to help visitors deeply engage with the exhibit, through reflection and making connections. It invites visitors to reflect on proposed hypotheses and engage in critical thinking that could be embodied in thinking about the reason beyond concepts and functioning rather than what they are or seem.

In a nutshell, the facilitators' role in science centers and museums is vital for better visitors’ engagement and journey. The interaction they create with the visitors does not only facilitate their journey, but helps them reach higher levels of engagement, which could generate special experiences for the visitors.