Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Inquiry, play, and problem solving in a process learning environment
by Thwaits, Anne Y., Ph.D., The University of Arizona, 2016, 322; 10113886
Abstract (Summary)

What is the nature of art/science collaborations in museums? How do art objects and activities contribute to the successes of science centers? Based on the premise that art exhibitions and art-based activities engage museum visitors in different ways than do strictly factual, information-based displays, I address these questions in a case study that examines the roles of visual art and artists in the Exploratorium, a museum that has influenced exhibit design and professional practice in many of the hands-on science centers in the United States and around the world.

The marriage of art and science in education is not a new idea—Leonardo da Vinci and other early polymaths surely understood how their various endeavors informed one another, and some 20th century educators understood the value of the arts and creativity in the learning and practice of other disciplines. When, in 2010, the National Science Teachers Association added an A to the federal government’s ubiquitous STEM initiative and turned it into STEAM, art educators nationwide took notice. With a heightened interest in the integration of and collaboration between disciplines comes an increased need for models of best practice for educators and educational institutions. With the intention to understand the nature of such collaborations and the potential they hold, I undertook this study.

I made three site visits to the Exploratorium, where I took photos, recorded notes in a journal, interacted with exhibits, and observed museum visitors. I collected other data by examining the institution’s website, press releases, annual reports, and fact sheets; and by reading popular and scholarly articles written by museum staff members and by independent journalists. I quickly realized that the Exploratorium was not created in the way than most museums are, and the history of its founding and the ideals of its founder illuminate what was then and continues now to be different about this museum from most others in the United States. This dissertation presents an account of the history of the institution and the continuing legacy of the early Exploratorium and its founder, Frank Oppenheimer. I argue that the institution is an early example of a constructivist learning museum. I then describe how art encourages learning in the museum. It provides means of presenting information that engage all of the senses and encourage emotional involvement. It reframes familiar sights so that viewers look more closely in search of recognition, and it presents intangible or dematerialized things in a tangible way. It facilitates play, with its many benefits. It brings fresh perspectives and processes to problem solving and the acquisition of new knowledge.

This project is the study of an institution where art and science have always coexisted with equal importance, setting it apart from more traditional museums where art was added as a secondary focus to the original disciplinary concentration of the institution. Many of the exhibits were created by artists, but the real value the visual arts bring to the museum is in its contributions to processes such as inquiry, play, problem-solving, and innovation.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Garber, Elizabeth
Commitee: Reid, Natasha, Shin, Ryan
School: The University of Arizona
Department: Art History & Education
School Location: United States -- Arizona
Source: DAI-A 77/10(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Art education, Science education, Museum studies
Keywords: Collaboration, Exhibit design, Problem solving, Process learning
Publication Number: 10113886
ISBN: 978-1-339-76942-4
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