Throwback Thursday: Science On a Sphere

Welcome to our new Throwback Thursday series, where we take a moment to look back at projects from our archives.  Today we’ll be sharing a case study about our planning and evaluation work with the Science Museum of Virginia and their Sphere Corps Program.  You might recall this particular Science On a Sphere program from one of our prior posts, Learning to Embrace Failure, and today we’ll share a bit more about how we approached the study, what we learned, and the implications of those findings.

Sphere Corps Program [2012]

For this planning and evaluation project with The Science Museum of Virginia (SMV), RK&A evaluated Sphere Corps, a Science on a Sphere program about climate change developed by SMV with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).    

How did we approach this study?  

The study was designed around RK&A’s belief that organizations must be intentional in their practice by continually clarifying purpose, aligning practices and resources to achieve purpose, measuring outcomes, and learning from practice to strengthen ongoing planning and actions.  To this end, the Sphere Corps project included five phases of work—a literature review, a workshop to define intended program outcomes, two rounds of formative evaluation, and two reflection workshops.  Formative evaluation data were collected using naturalistic observations and in-depth interviews.  Each phase of work allowed staff to explore their vision for the Sphere Corps program and how it changed over time as they learned from and reflected on evaluation findings.

What did we learn?SOS

SMV staff’s goal was to create a facilitated, inquiry-based Science on a Sphere program about climate change.  RK&A first completed a literature review that revealed a facilitated Sphere experience was in keeping with best practices and that using inquiry methods in a 20-minute program would be challenging but worth exploring further.  Staff then brainstormed and honed the outcomes they hoped to achieve in Sphere Corps, which guided planning and script development.  The first round of formative evaluation identified implementation barriers and an overabundance of iClicker questions, all of which created a challenging environment for educators to effectively use inquiry.  Upon reflection, staff reduced the number of iClicker questions and added visualizations and questions that required close observation of the Sphere.  Following a second round of formative evaluation, staff made additional changes to the program script and began to reflect on the reality of using inquiry in a single 20-minute program.  Since the script covered a range of topics related to climate change, staff wondered if they should instead go deeper with one topic while encouraging more visitor observation and interpretation of Sphere data.  Out of this discussion arose the idea of “mini-programs”—a series of programs that would focus on communicating one key idea about climate change, such as helping people understand the difference between weather and climate.

What are the implications of the findings?

Central to the idea of the “mini-program” is the idea of doing less to achieve more.  Impact and outcomes are incredibly difficult to achieve and trying to achieve too much often results in accomplishing very little.  Through a reflection workshop and staff discussion, the SMV team was able to prioritize and streamline the outcomes and indicators originally written for the Sphere Corps program.  Staff also recognized that their primary goal with the Sphere Corps program is to encourage visitors to think more critically about the science behind climate change.  By scaling down the number of topics covered in the presentation, each program could intentionally focus on: (1) one key idea or question related to climate change; (2) achievement of only a few intended outcomes; and (3) implementation of specific facilitation strategies to achieve those outcomes.  Intentionally covering less content also opens up opportunities to more effectively use inquiry methods.


Every day I am reminded how much power passion has—for those who feel it—we are driven to do what we love; for those who have the pleasure of hearing others talk about their passion—we are struck by the depth of their love for something—whether contemporary art, medieval manuscripts, or organic chemistry.  Last night I attended a “Senate of Scientists” dinner and lecture at the National Museum of Natural History.  These events are not open to the public, and I am lucky to have attended so many of these events over the years because my husband is a scientist at the museum.  I always enjoy myself.  Oh yes, the lectures are wonderful, and I always learn something new—that’s one reason why I enjoy attending.  What I realized last night (I’m not sure what took me so long) is that part of what makes the experience special is the people who attend.  All have a passion that they pursue, and while their passion may be different from the passion of the guest speaker, all are engaged in the evening’s topic.  When different passions fill a room, the questions that follow the presentation are always bold, owning to people’s differing perceptions and ways of viewing the world.  Discourse has always been friendly, even when a challenge is put forth.

Last night’s experience stands out.  While the speaker, a female scientist from Stanford, was inspiring, my evening was invigorating for another reason.  Just as I was about to sit down with my plate of food, a young woman (16 years) came over to me with her grandmother (whom I recognized) and said, “My name is Sahara, like the desert; may we sit with you?”  So, when young people attend these lectures, they stand out—there may be one or two other teens who attend with their parents, but essentially they are sitting with adults who are their parents’ or grandparents’ ages.  I thought I had seen this girl before, but I wasn’t sure, so I started asking questions.  Within less than 30 seconds, I learned that Sahara was passionate about chemistry.  She couldn’t wait to share with anyone who would listen that she wanted to be a chemical engineer because she “has to”; she has no choice!  Her passion was so strong that there just wasn’t anything else that she could possibly do in life.  As I was talking with her, I realized that I had met her some years earlier; she was a girl then, and now she was a young woman who was going after her dream.  She told me that she wanted to attend the lecture because the speaker is from Stanford and she will find out on December 16th if she has been accepted to Stanford—her number one choice.  She said she was trying hard to not get her hopes up, but when I asked her about her GPA (4.2) and scores (SAT: 2200/2400; ACT 32/36), I just smiled.  I thought it was good that she was a little worried, showing her humility and recognition that there are many smart people in the world.

Sahara like the desert (which is how she introduced herself to everyone she met) will do just fine in life, and I hope she will attend future lectures when she visits her mother and grandmother during school breaks from Stanford.  Her passion will pull her through (along with her charm and delightful manner) any hard times she may encounter.  Sahara like the desert made my evening memorable, and she warmed my heart.   I suspect we all know remarkable young men and women who are following their passions; I just wanted you to meet Sahara.  She is special and I suspect she will be an amazing chemical engineer.

Investigative Science

One of the amazing benefits of working as an evaluator with a variety of institutions is the opportunity for personal learning.  Having an art-history background, I find myself learning the most when I’m placed in non-art environments—reading about fault lines and earthquakes at the California Academy of Science, or getting my hands dirty while exploring decomposers at the New York Botanical Garden.  Granted, as an evaluator, my job is to understand how visitors experience these exhibits and programs, but as a museum-loving individual, I can’t help but want to engage with the content myself.

In the past month, some of my RK&A colleagues and I have had the pleasure of evaluating exhibits and programs about a range of topics, including tropical animal and plant life, of which I, as an Ohio native, have great appreciation for and very little personal knowledge.  Recently we conducted a formative evaluation at the Miami Science Museum of the aquarium component planned for the new Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science.  The exhibits (a mix of zero edge tankinteractives and live-animal tanks) were designed specifically to encourage visitors to look closely, discuss their observations, ask questions, and explain what their observations might mean.  As I observed from visitors’ experiences, these sorts of exhibits and behaviors prompted visitors to engage as active participants and informal learners, having fun exploring an exhibit while employing scientific skills (sometimes even unknowingly).

It was a few weeks later on a work trip to Puerto Rico when I first realized how much I had unknowingly absorbed from our recent environmentally-focused work and how often I was using these newly found scientific skills.  My colleague Emily Craig had surprised me with a visit to a local beach between our data collection sessions, and as we walked up and down the beach, I noticed that we were doing the same behaviors we had monitored weeks earlier when conducting the formative evaluation at the Miami Science Sea UrchinMuseum.  We pointed out bright green vegetation and abandoned white shells once home to small creatures adhered to the driftwood.  We looked closely at the patterns of snail shells, which reminded me of patterns from blue and white china.  We tested the suction-based strength of a sea urchin (one of the live animals we had learned about at the Miami Science Museum) when we attempted to carefully move it to safer grounds. Octopus We speculated about the type of rocks that made up the shore based on the way the rocks seemed to cement fossils and sea glass in their cracks.  We observed a baby octopus that had been washed ashore before scooping it up and returning it to sea.  We made claims about the small, squishy spheres we found on the shoreline, hypothesizing that they were eggs and guessing which creatures had laid them.  In short, we were bringing our museum-honed scientific skills and sense of investigative science to the Puerto Rican shoreline.

Emily and Ros at the beachBeing on the shore for that moment gave me an even greater appreciation of the work that museums and cultural institutions do and their importance in our lives.  Though I often visit institutions wearing my evaluator hat, focusing on other people’s experiences rather than my own, the information and knowledge institutions offer still seep into my subconscious interactions with the world—prompting me to wonder just how much we take away from our museum experiences that we may never even recognize.

And now for something completely different…

Snow Shoes in the CascadesI am no stranger to nature.  I went to summer camp as a kid and I took a wilderness survival class in high school (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I got mono and never took the outdoor final exam).  While living in Seattle, I climbed Mt. Si, and accidentally snow-shoed up a ski run in the Cascade Mountains (the path was accidental, not the snow-shoeing).  I own my own hiking boots, sleeping bag and tent.  They just don’t get much of a workout.  I prefer to leave the outdoor activities to my geologist sister.  Her job takes her to places where the nearest town is 40 miles away.  My job takes me to Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  I like it that way.

Hard HatMy work with RK&A has taken me to science museums, history museums and botanical gardens.  I have collected data on the National Mall in the heat of an Indian summer, and in an active construction site where I, along with the visitors I was interviewing, was required to wear a hard hat while speaking (sometimes yelling) over the noise of table saws. Certainly most of my museum evaluation experiences have been in traditional museum settings; I haven’t had to worry much about “roughing it.”  It is unlikely that I will find myself too far from snacks or indoor plumbing.  But recently, my work took me someplace a little different.

I spent four days in Manati, Puerto Rico working with the Conservation Trust and its Citizen Science project.  The activities in the Citizen Science project are led by university scientists and often don’t take place indoors.  Just getting to some of the activity sites was an adventure – skirting the edge of rivers or hiking 20 minutes into the forest.  The only snacks were the ones we brought with us, and bathrooms?  Forget it!  To further complicate things, the programs were conducted in Spanish, so I could only observe the action, relying on the kindness of the participants, scientists and our bilingual data collectors to provide context for what was going on.  To say that before I arrived I was nervous about what would happen would be an understatement.

As it turns out, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I understood more than I thought I would and I didn’t feel uncomfortable or out of place.  I learned new Costline of Puerto Ricothings about the ocean and the rivers.  I learned what bats look like up close.  I experienced more of Puerto Rico than I would have on a typical vacation, traveling to parts of the island that were far away from the tourist destinations of San Juan.  And truthfully, I saw more of Puerto Rico than I have of Chicago or Miami since I was outside, exploring the area, rather than in a museum all day.  And as I watched participants try new activities and learn new things, I was reminded that informal education can happen anywhere, even without climate control and labels!  Informal education can happen as long as there are people who want to share their knowledge with others.

I still love the evaluation work I do in museums, and I don’t see myself leaving the museum field for another kind of field (although the idea of dedicating myself to the study of the coast seemed particularly attractive after spending a warm and sunny morning on the beach—for work.).  I love hearing people speak passionately about their experiences, and getting excited about things they see or read in traditional museum spaces.

But if you find that you need to evaluate a project that is off the beaten path (or at the beach!), give RK&A a call.  I know there is at least one Research Associate ready for an adventure.