Learning on the Trail: A Content Analysis of a University Arboretum's Exemplary Interpretive Science Signage System

By Wandersee, James H.; Clary, Renee M. | The American Biology Teacher, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Learning on the Trail: A Content Analysis of a University Arboretum's Exemplary Interpretive Science Signage System


Wandersee, James H., Clary, Renee M., The American Biology Teacher


In October 1941, The American Biology Teacher (Vol. 4, No. 1) devoted its entire special issue to teaching biology via field trips. To this day, field trips to outdoor informal science education sites remain an accepted way of teaching science (NABT, 1994; NRC, 1996). The goal of such site visits is always to provide experiential learning opportunities for students that support or enhance classroom science learning, as well as increase students' motivation to learn.

Outdoor informal science education sites use a variety of approaches to present information and provide interpretation. We have observed that visitors' educational opportunities at such sites vary widely in quality and quantity. When we discovered a university arboretum that had a large and engaging interpretive science signage system, the best we had ever seen in the U.S. and abroad, we chose to conduct an in-depth content analysis to determine the underlying information architecture of the system. Through our research, we were able to develop criteria that enable biology teachers to assess the quality of the opportunity to learn provided by signage systems at similar outdoor science educational sites. These criteria can also be used by biology teachers and students to design such a signage system for a nature trail at their school.

Why Analyze an Exemplary Outdoor Science Signage System?

We have often been disappointed by both the quality and the quantity of interpretive science signs at the major arboreta, zoos, fossil parks, and botanic gardens that we have visited. We have also reviewed a wide range of published educational research on the design of label systems for informal learning settings-from art museums to science centers. We decided that much of it was context specific, content specific, exhibit-focused, and thus inapplicable to an outdoor interpretive science signage system at an arboretum, botanic garden, zoo, or fossil park. In response to the apparent lack of research and guidelines for outdoor science signage systems, we have attempted to (1) discover what design elements may have made the Crosby Arboretum signage system's text seem so interesting and readable to us, (2) help science instructors choose field trip sites wisely by assessing the opportunity to learn from interpretive science signage texts found on outdoor trails (NWRL, 2003), and (3) assist those who wish to design a school-based or public interpretive signage system for a nature trail.

To do so, we performed an in-depth content analysis of this unique trailside science signage system. We also decided to benchmark our research analysis using Canada's state-of-the-art Watchable Wildlife interpretive plant sign set of 46 signs (Government of Alberta, 2002-2003). We did this because our research program subscribes to the principle that comparison leads to understanding.

What Is the Potential Educational Value of a Trailside Interpretive Signage System?

At an outdoor site, such as an arboretum, botanic garden, fossil park, or zoo, a system of well-planned, interpretive science signs (called labels in the informal education literature) can help to promote inquiry and to stimulate constructive science discussions among field-trip participants. It can also engage, motivate, and even captivate learners whose science interests do not always align with the prescribed science curriculum (Serrell, 1996). In addition, interpretive signs, mounted at an angle on sturdy posts, are self-chosen, self-pacing, self-editable, and non-consumable. They provide information at all times, mark a designated object of interest, and offer a larger and more communal "information display area" than a trail guide brochure (Sharpe, 1976).

According to Ahrens (1943), a nature trail sign should contain a plant's common name, its scientific name, and "some fact [about the plant] that will aid the memory" (p. 87). Science educational thought has changed since then. …

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