The Zoo and Aquarium Action Research Collaborative research project targets zoo and aquarium staff with a cascading action research model meant to build the capacity of the informal science education field to conduct research on visitor learning. Research questions focus around the experiences of participating zoo and aquarium staff in conducting action research on visitor experiences and how they use the information from that research to improve and develop educational programs.

In the first year of the project, zoo and aquarium staff will implement a well validated educational activity with visitors to their institutions and learn how to develop and implement action research in their context. In the second year of the project, zoo and aquarium staff will take their new skills in action research and develop their own questions to investigate visitor learning in their own organizational settings. Project staff will train zoo and aquarium staff in action research, provide technical assistance and facilitate collaboration among the sites and staff. This project will contribute to learning in the field about models for professional development and how to develop the research capacity of ISE staff. Partners in this project include TERC and Oregon State University and sites are situated in zoos and aquariums in six states including CA, MO, MA, AZ, MD and WA. At each of these institutions approximately 15 senior staff will participate in the professional development. Evalaution of the project will focus on the learning that is generated about collaborative models for action research and the impact on ISE staff of participating in action research as professional development. Methods for the evaluation will include surveys and interviews with participants, observations, document review and site visits.

Outcomes of the project include increased capacity for zoo and aquarium staff to conduct research on visitor learning, case studies of collaborative action research projects that will be disseminated widely through workshops and conferences, and research papers presented at conferences and published.

Project Report

The Zoo and Aquarium Action Research Collaborative – ZAARC - project’s goal was to determine how action research-based professional development could best be implemented in informal science settings (particularly zoos and aquariums) and in what ways it could affect both individual practitioners and institutions. The ZAARC project was organized into two major phases. Phase 1 focused on the training of three practitioner action researchers from each of six participating zoos and aquariums - Phoenix Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, Maryland Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, Aquarium of the Pacific and New England Aquarium - in the fundamentals of conducting research. Training involved participation in a preliminary set of ZAARC project-directed activities, a multi-day workshop, online forums, monthly phone calls with project mentor and a multi-day site visit by a project mentor. Phase 2 of the project involved the design and implementation of practitioner-generated action research projects. Projects were supported by project mentors, online forums, support for conference presentations, a face-to-face multi-day workshop, monthly phone calls with project mentor and a multi-day site visit by a project mentor. In all 8 action research projects derived from participating practitioners' individual and institutional priorities and goals were initiated and completed. Projects covered a wide range of topics such as improving visitor engagement, enhancing staff capabilities in educational practice, and improving specific school outreach programs. Evidence of the success of project at meeting its goals was gathered from multiple sources, including an extensive summative evaluation at the end of the project. There was strong evidence that each of the participating practitioners, all of whom actively were involved in implementing an action research project, generated new knowledge about their chosen research topics, an enhanced repertoire of professional practice and increased confidence and self-esteem as education professionals. There was also evidence that ZAARC positively influenced the quality of education at each of the participating institutions. That said, the systemic impacts of ZAARC at the institutional level were mixed. At some institutions the ZAARC project resulted in significant cultural change, in others there was limited evidence of institutional change. Overall, research on the professional development approach in ZAARC demonstrated that a mentored team-based model for professional development of zoo and aquarium educators could be used to enhance the professional capabilities of zoo and aquarium staff. It also pointed out several aspects of the model that could be improved – notably, providing better opportunities for teams to communicate and collaborate with one another and the importance of early-on enlisting the full support of institution administration. Findings from ZAARC promise to help clarify both the opportunities and challenges, strengths and limitations of implementing wide-scale professional development not only within the zoo and aquarium field but more broadly within the informal science education field. Insights also have the potential to inform similar professional development efforts in other communities, including in K-16 and public health education settings.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL)
Application #
Program Officer
Arlene M. de Strulle
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Oregon State University
United States
Zip Code