The Kirby Science Center Experience

The Kirby Science Center Experience

Why ask?

Evaluation has long been a part of any interpretive planning strategy, especially for interpretive centre or museum exhibits. When you consider the costs of exhibits to agencies (estimated at $300/£230 per square foot of exhibit floor space) you would think that before the exhibits were delivered the agency would want to make sure they "worked", i.e. accomplished the objectives they were designed for. Unfortunately this evaluation process rarely happens and many exhibits quietly "fail" to make any contact with visitors.

I was recently a part of the Derse Exhibits team to plan, design, build and "evaluate" exhibits for the new Kirby Science Center, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They had three empty floors and wanted top quality science exhibits to fill the building – a $3,000,000.00 project. Part of the total project the client wanted was a thorough evaluation of exhibits to make sure that each exhibit accomplished its specific interpretive objectives. This short article will summarise what and how the evaluation took place and what I and the team learned from this "wrenching" experience called evaluation.

What were the exhibits supposed to do?

Before you can evaluate anything you have to first know what it was supposed to accomplish. Part of the total exhibit plan was an "Interpretive Exhibit" plan. This consisted of each individual exhibit having – in writing – a specific concept the exhibit was to present, and specific learning, behavioural and emotional objectives each exhibit was held accountable to accomplish. We would later evaluate the mock up exhibits against those stated objectives.

The evaluation strategy

For this evaluation strategy I developed several different evaluation methods to be used for the total evaluation. The evaluation would take approximately 4 weeks to do. We set up draft/mock- up exhibits in the warehouse of Derse Exhibits – evaluating approximately 15 exhibits each week, representing six different science subject areas. We then arranged with local schools for teachers to bring in their classes to "test the exhibits" for us. We would test each set of 15 exhibits over the course of one week.

The evaluation strategies included:

A written pre-test and post-test. We brought in school busses of children from different schools to be our "audience" for the evaluation. Before being allowed to use the exhibits each group took a short written multiple choice and true/false pre test relating to each exhibits objectives. After the pre test the children could then go and "use" the exhibits. After spending about 45 minutes with the exhibits they came back for a written post test. We wanted to see if there was any change in what they knew about the tested science concepts from before seeing and using the exhibits – and then after they interacted with the exhibits.

Observational Studies. This part of the evaluation used a trained observer stationed at each exhibit to simply watch/record what the children did or didn’t do. This told us a lot about things like "instructions", graphic placements, and subjects that children did and didn’t have any interest in.

The quick fix – and fix – and fix again

Essentially our plan was to have two groups of children test the exhibits on Monday of each of the four weeks. We would then analyze the test results and our observational results – make any changes to the exhibits on Tuesday – bring in two new groups of students on Wednesday – make any more corrections on Thursday – do one final test on Friday – make any final adjustments, and then ship out the completed exhibits from that weeks testing on to the Science Center over the weekend. We would then repeat the evaluation process the next week for 15 different exhibits.

What we found out – Oh the pain!

What did we learn from this experience? We learned that if we had not done the testing the great majority of the exhibits we "adults" planned would have been failures! Virtually EVERY exhibit we tested had to be "fixed" in some way. Here are a few examples of some of the things we observed:

For example, with this exhibit on "magnetism"(above) you were directed (left photo -arrow) to move the magnet on the chain UNDER the objects, the magnetic items would then move. Not one child followed these directions. They only used the magnet from above! They wanted to see the magnet on the chain interact directly with the item in the exhibit (right photo). We fixed this by changing the directions and raising items in each container so magnetic objects would react with the magnet held from above. We found that children found any written directions to be "invisible". In 98% of the cases the children did not look at or read "any" directions unless an adult suggested they do so. If they had to read complex directions to do the activity – they usually left the activity.

Another interesting example of what and how children think was our "how bats find food" exhibit (below).

We also were able to test the construction of the exhibits themselves, and some of the exhibit tools. For example, our "indestructible" microscopes (photo below) didn’t last a week!

What we learned

This month long evaluation process taught us all a lot, the most important of which was that if we hadn't done the evaluation we would have built exhibits using adult ideas of how children learn that children would NOT have learned from.

Some key points:

From the pre-post tests, we found that there were some subjects students already had good concept level understanding of – pre tested at a 80% correct response or higher on the written test; and some areas they had a very poor understanding of – with correct responses on the pre test of 50% or less. We did find that when comparing the pre test and post test results, there were often increases in correct answers on the post tests, depending of the individual exhibits. So the exhibits were generally working – but the initial post test improvements were generally very weak, may be only 5-15% improvements on post tests at the start of the week (Monday testing). But by Friday, after the exhibits had gone through many changes in design, instructions presentation, and concept presentation, we were at an average of 80% comprehension or better on post testing for most exhibits. By doing this formative evaluation through out the week of testing, we were ending up with "very good to excellent" exhibits as far as having their educational objectives accomplished at a 70% level or higher (our goal).

We found that EVERY exhibit we evaluated over the 4 week period (about 60 exhibits) had to have some "improvements". Some exhibits just needed a little fix – such as the addition of a label that said "push the button" (otherwise the button to start the activity would not be pushed), to some exhibits needing a major re-design.

We found that children did not even look at, let alone read any "written" instructions. But we did have success in redesigning instructions in cartoon or "comic book" formats – more visual presentation instructions. The instructions themselves had to look fun or interesting. For many of these exhibits to be used most efficiently would require a docent, science educator or teacher to help facilitate and direct the learning activity. But the exhibits did work effectively on their own after evaluation driven re-designs. When our researchers facilitated the learning – explaining directions, etc. the exhibits worked wonderfully.

The design team and the client all learned that the ONLY way you will know for sure if you have a "successful" exhibit – not just a pretty exhibit – is to evaluate it with your intended target market group. The visitors will tell you if your exhibit is successful in communicating with them or not – if you ask them!


This short article only begins to touch on some of the many complex educational issues and design challenges we encountered by doing this evaluation. My goal was to provide an introduction as to why evaluate, and how the process helped us to finally design and build exhibits that were really educationally successful. We believe that based on all that we learned about exhibit users for this museum, that evaluation for any exhibit project is not an option but a requirement for true exhibit success.


  • Veverka, John A 1998 Kirby Science Center Exhibit Evaluation Report. Unpublished report for the Kirby Science Center, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
  • Veverka, John A. 1994 Interpretive Master Planning. Acorn Naturalists, Tustin, CA.
  • Veverka, John A. 1999. "Where is the Interpretation in Interpretive Exhibits".