Students try out a prototype during the EDGE refurbishment of Stripped-Down Motor, a classic exhibit that allows you to play with a simple motor. The team added open-endedness and homemade objects. Photo: Amy Snyder/Exploratorium
Mind the Gap
“EDGE is there to help me justify and support my choices or nudge things in a way that is reassuring; it is a counterbalance, a bolster, a fairy on my shoulder.”—Jessica Strick, Lead Exhibit Developer
While designing the Geometry Playground exhibition in the mid 2000s, the Exploratorium’s research team was struck by the numerous studies that consistently showed a gap between girls’ and boys’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Specifically, girls were shown to be less likely to visit science centers, enroll in AP science courses in high school, and major in and pursue careers in STEM fields.
This being the Exploratorium, our researchers were determined to find out both why this disparity exists, and what could be done to make STEM more inclusive and interesting for people of all genders. Thus, the Exhibit Designs for Girls’ Engagement project (known as EDGE) was born.
The EDGE project—a three-year, Exploratorium-run, and NSF-funded research study—aimed to identify the most important design attributes for engaging girls in STEM exhibits. This line of inquiry focused on the ages of 8 to 13, a crucial developmental time during which positive experiences have been shown to foster lifelong interest and confidence in academic subjects.
Students try out a prototype for Jumping the Gap, a new version of Communicating Coils, a classic electricity and magnetism exhibit. The team added whimsy and open-endedness. Photo: Amy Snyder/Exploratorium
Elements of Engagement
Out of 55 exhibit design attributes included in the original study, the research identified nine that strongly correlated with positively engaging girls. A summary of these aspects of design are:
- Multiple sides or stations that allow shared ownership of the experience
- Space to accommodate three or more people within the exhibit
- Open-ended interactions without a protocol or specific objective
- Ability to watch others’ reactions to the exhibit to preview what to expect
- Signage including an image of person or body part
- Labels incorporating a “use drawing” showing how to get started
- Adding or repurposing familiar, accessible objects
- Featuring homey, homemade, personal, or delicate components
- Integrating playful, whimsical, or humorous elements
Students play with the gallery version of Jumping the Gap. The team focused first on our electricity and magnetism exhibits, which ranked weakly in EDGE attributes. Photo: Amy Snyder/Exploratorium
Changing the Game
Upon completing the research in 2016, the Exploratorium began investigating ways to begin using these attributes to center girls’ preferences within all aspects of exhibit imagining, design, construction, and display at the museum.
Now, in 2022, EDGE is an integral part of the exhibit developer’s creative toolkit.
“The work we have done with EDGE so far is still just the beginning of making more engaging, equitable, and inclusive exhibits,” explains Meghan Kroning, Visitor Research & Evaluation Manager. “For us, EDGE has become a learning and assessment tool that helps us notice and be nudged towards opportunities to make exhibits more welcoming and inclusive.”
Next time you visit the Exploratorium, we invite you to look for EDGE design attributes integrated into the exhibits—and see for yourself the subtle, yet impactful, ways the museum is becoming a more engaging place for all of our visitors.