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Published: March 11, 2024

Excavating Children’s Learning Habits at Glazer’s “Big John” Exhibit

Note to parents: Buying a toy at the museum gift shop does more than stave off a temper tantrum. A recent student-faculty research project at the Glazer Children’s Museum found that it can influence a child’s learning habits and memory. 

Psychology Associate Professor Sara Festini and Assistant Professor Jennifer Blessing and a team of undergraduate researchers offered boys and girls a choice between a red plastic, realistic dinosaur toy and a sparkly dinosaur toy after the children saw the museum’s “Big John,” multi-million-dollar triceratops skeleton on exhibit. The researchers wanted to compare gender, toy choice and parenting influence in learning how children and families retain science-based learning.

Excavating Children’s Learning Habits at Glazer’s “Big John” ExhibitIn Glazer Children’s Museum, “Big John”, the multi-million dollar dinosaur fossil, helped Psychology Associate Professor Sara Festini and Assistant Professor Jennifer Blessing, and students Sofia Condorelli ’24, Spencer Henning ’25, Adriana Lutzio ’25, Madison Curtis ’25, Stacey Hoffmeister ’25 and Desiree Gray ’24, excavate new data in museum and parenting influences on a child’s learning. Photo courtesy of Festini

They studied 126 boys and girls ages 4-9.

What the researchers found out about the parents, as much as the children, was revelatory.

Parents were asked to report the children’s recollection of dinosaur facts after a week from being at the museum. Those who chose the red plastic toy, especially girls, showed astonishing recollection. 

“What (toy) a child picks potentially has a long-term carryover effect,” Blessing explained.

At children’s science museums, the main visitors are usually moms with sons.

“There's been tons of museum studies that we're always (concluding): ‘Yes, let's dig in. Let's bring boys to museums and talk to them about science and use big science words.’ Girls don't get that same experience,” Blessing said.

At Glazer, things were different.

Dads were the ones bringing their children to see “Big John.” And the girls who visited with their dads had high retention rates. Turns out, the dads were talking about science with their girls much more than anyone thought.

“It's an interesting, different slice of data than what's been published so far in the literature on museums and parents,” Blessing said. “And that’s one of the reasons why I hope we are able to get this published.” 

Festini and Blessing are working with students Sofia Condorelli ’24, Spencer Henning ’25, Adriana Lutzio ’25, Madison Curtis ’25, Stacey Hoffmeister ’25 and Desiree Gray ’24 to publish the research that could change the way museums advertise and bring attention to an underreported demographic, dads and daughters. The road to publishing, however, is long and filled with potholes for student-faculty research.

In psychology, research is the biggest foundation of the field, said Hoffmeister. Yet, undergraduates rarely ever get involved in research, much less publish.  

“For a lot of my friends that go to larger state schools, it's a lot harder for them to get involved in research, especially as involved as we are. We’re collecting the data every day. We're going into the office. We're running the analyses. We're really under our professor's wing,” Hoffmeister said. 

At February’s Florida Undergraduate Research Conference in Jacksonville, the “Dino Group” had the most popular posters. 

Blessing said she knew the group would be a success from the beginning. Before gearing up for Glazer, the students roleplayed as children as the team practiced their questions. The “children” played their rowdy role excellently.

And the researchers? 

Blessing laughed.

“Well, I think we all probably channeled our parents.”

 

Story by Lena Malpeli '25 


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