Visualizing biological data in museums: Visitor learning with an interactive tree of life exhibit

Michael S. Horn*, Brenda C. Phillips, Evelyn Margaret Evans, Florian Block, Judy Diamond, Chia Shen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


In this study, we investigate museum visitor learning and engagement at an interactive visualization of an evolutionary tree of life consisting of over 70,000 species. The study was conducted at two natural history museums where visitors collaboratively explored the tree of life using direct touch gestures on a multi-touch tabletop display. In the study, 247 youth, aged 8–15 years, were randomly assigned in pairs to one of four conditions. In two of the conditions, pairs of youth interacted with different versions of the tree of life tabletop exhibit for a fixed duration of 10 minutes. In a third condition, pairs watched a 10 minute video on a similar topic. Individual responses on a 53-item exit interview were then compared to responses from a fourth, baseline condition. Contrasting with the baseline condition, visitors who interacted with the tabletop exhibits were significantly more likely to reason correctly about core evolutionary concepts, particularly common descent and shared ancestry. They were also more likely to correctly interpret phylogenetic tree diagrams. To investigate the factors influencing these learning outcomes, we used linear mixed models to analyze measures of dyads’ verbal engagement and physical interaction with the exhibit. These models indicated that, while our verbal and physical measures were related, they accounted for significant portions of the variance on their own, independent of youth age, prior knowledge, and parental background. Our results provide evidence that multi-touch interactive exhibits that enable visitors to explore large scientific datasets can provide engaging and effective learning opportunities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)895-918
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Research in Science Teaching
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • evolution
  • informal science learning
  • information visualization
  • interactive tabletops
  • museums

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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