Material Exhibits at AZA Zoos, Aquariums and Theme-Parks: Applying a Design, Content and Context Approach to Evaluating Environmental Education

Authors: Rachelle Pontes*, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Rebecca Johns, University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Topics: Environment, Human-Environment Geography, Communication
Keywords: Enviromental Education, Florida, environmental literacy, material exhibits
Session Type: Paper
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Our society faces escalating environmental challenges with catastrophic implications. Environmental education (EE) is essential for creating an informed and active citizenry prepared to address urgent ecological problems. With a reach of over 195 million visitors annually, and diverse visitor demographics, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoos, aquariums, and animal-based theme parks are uniquely positioned to be critical centers of non-formal environmental education. This paper is part of a larger project comparing the focus and trajectory of EE in Florida with that of flagship zoos, aquariums and animal-based theme parks throughout the country, examining the projected role of humans in environmental problems, types of solutions emphasized, and the pedagogical strategies employed by the sample facilities.
This paper focuses specifically on educational signage at the sample facilities. A design, content, and context (DCC) framework, developed by the author, guides careful rhetorical and material evaluation of educational signage at 15 AZA-accredited zoos, aquariums and theme parks, interrogating and assessing the environmental narrative conveyed to the public through material exhibits. By identifying trends, gaps, and weaknesses in topical focus, rhetoric, design, and setting of educational signage, this evaluation provides a baseline from which researchers can better examine the immediate and long-term learning outcomes associated with material educational exhibits and build on strengths and successes in EE at zoos. Finally, suggestions for best-practices to increase adult environmental literacy are offered.

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