Science Brief

A great match: Psychological scientists and museum educators

Living Laboratory® offers a new model for building public understanding of psychology as a STEM discipline.

By Marta Biarnes and Becki Kipling

Marta BiarnesMarta Biarnes is the professional development associate and co-PI of the NSF-supported National Living Laboratory initiative at the Museum of Science, Boston. Her work centers on supporting museums and universities around the country in their effort to establish, build and sustain collaborations that aim to educate the public about cognitive development. Biarnes co-founded the MOS Living Laboratory program in 2005, and since then, has been bridging psychology and informal science education to increase public visibility of psychological science. 

Becki KiplingBecki Kipling manages the Discovery Center at the Museum of Science, Boston, where she is responsible for creating exhibits and programs that support the development of science process skills and technological literacy in early childhood. Her work focuses on helping children discover their own emerging capabilities as science learners and thinkers, and in helping adult caregivers better understand how children develop the skills needed for future success in science and engineering. In 2005 Kipling co-founded Living Laboratory — an innovative model for conducting child development research in museums. She led the NSF-funded project that vetted the Living Laboratory model of on-site research, public education and professional development for scientists and educators. Kipling is currently primary investigator for the NSF-funded Broad Implementation: Creating Communities of Learners for Informal Cognitive Science Education, also known as the National Living Lab Initiative.

National Living Laboratory website

Psychology has an image problem. The American Psychological Association (APA) has been actively advocating for the recognition of psychology as a core science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discipline. A 2010 APA Presidential Task Force report indicates that the lack of understanding of psychology as a science by policy makers and the public at large is pervasive and has limited the field, perhaps most notably in that “psychologists are often ineligible for STEM funding that provides support for education, training, and research.” Although changing public perceptions of psychology will require a multipronged approach, one novel avenue is for psychologists to engage the public directly — at their local museums.

It is the mission of science museums to connect people with science through immersive, hands-on experiences that inspire curiosity. Science centers also serve as community hubs, collaborating with academics from all disciplines, policy makers and formal educators to increase scientific literacy among the members of the public. Traditionally, psychology has been underrepresented in science museums, perhaps contributing to the misconception among the public that psychology is not a science. One step towards changing public perception of psychology is to connect psychological researchers and science museum educators through deliberate educational programs that advance both fields.

One evidenced-based model for this is Living Laboratory®. Developed at the Museum of Science, Boston (MOS) with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Living Laboratory aims to educate museum visitors about psychology by immersing them in the process of scientific discovery. Since 2005, Living Laboratory at the MOS has connected the public with child development research by collaborating with local research institutions, including Harvard University, Boston College, Boston University, MIT, Boston Children’s Hospital and others. In the Living Laboratory model, collaborating scientists conduct their studies within dynamic museum exhibits, rather than behind closed doors at a university lab. Families visiting the museum are invited to participate in ongoing studies, and engage in one-on-one conversations with scientists who have received training in museum-style education practices. 

Why Living Laboratory?

Living Laboratory’s innovative collaborative model was developed in order to engage adult visitors to the MOS Discovery Center, an early childhood exhibition with approximately 300,000 visitors annually. Serving children from birth to age eight and their accompanying grownups, the Discovery Center offers an assortment of fun, hands-on activities that are designed to encourage discovery through play. Staff and volunteer educators utilize an extensive teaching collection of real objects to explore natural history, physical science and technology topics with young visitors and their caregivers.

In 2004, Discovery Center staff recognized that adult caregivers visiting within family groups were a “lost audience” of learners in the children’s exhibition, with few opportunities to engage in their own meaningful science learning. Museum staff also recognized that the science of child development is relevant and interesting to caregivers of young children, although it was an underrepresented field in science centers. Seeing an opportunity, Discovery Center staff, in collaboration with child development scientists at Harvard University and MIT, began designing a program that would engage parents and other caregivers by introducing them to the scientific study of children’s learning and development. By collaborating with scientists who study children’s development, the museum hoped to provide visitors and staff with access to the latest theories, methods and findings in the field.

Building a mutually beneficial collaboration between the MOS and its academic partners required integrating two different professional cultures into one successful educational program. Cultural differences became apparent early on, and these were addressed by systematic communication between the museum staff and the academic pioneers of Living Laboratory. One early collaborator was Andrew Baron, PhD, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and directs Living Laboratory at Science World in Vancouver, Canada. As a graduate student at Harvard, Baron participated in bi-weekly meetings with museum staff to increase understanding of each other's ways of working, and to develop mutually beneficial solutions to challenges. The time invested ensured that we tackled initial challenges collaboratively, and this approach has ensured sustainability of the program at the MOS. According to Baron, a great contributor to Living Laboratory's initial success was "patience and a commitment to believing that there is a better model by which researchers and community centers such as science and children's museums can partner together to advance science while educating and inspiring visitors of all ages to see the practice of science in their daily lives.”

Formative evaluation during the initial stages of collaboration identified three key features that would ensure a rich and meaningful research experience for visitors: 

  1. Studies that were short in duration — less than 15 minutes. 
  2. Research experiences that were easily accessible to all visitors, not in a separate closed room. 
  3. Mutual professional development for scientists and museum educators. 
With these “essentials” in mind, we worked with scientists to bring research studies onto the museum floor within the Discovery Center exhibition, increasing the educational offerings for adults who accompany their children to the museum through scientist-facilitated interpretations, and allowing research participation to become part of the free-choice family learning environment. This initial collaborative work with MIT and Harvard University laid the groundwork for Living Laboratory, leading to a full-scale development project which received NSF support to evaluate mechanisms for communicating the research to our visitors (NSF grant 0714706, “A Participatory Model for Integrating Cognitive Research into Exhibits for Children”).

Peter Blake, EdD conducting research on children's altruistic behavior with a family in the Discovery Center (Blake & Rand, 2010)Igor Bascandiev, EdD conducting research on the gravity bias with a family in the Discovery Center (Bascandziev & Harris, 2010; Bascandziev & Harris, 2011)
Left photo: Peter Blake, EdD, conducting research on children's altruistic behavior with a family in the Discovery Center (Blake & Rand, 2010); Right photo: Igor Bascandiev, EdD, conducting research on the gravity bias with a family in the Discovery Center (Bascandziev & Harris, 2010; Bascandziev & Harris, 2011).

Mutual benefits in the Living Laboratory model 

Living Laboratory benefits three distinct audiences: the general public, researchers and museum educators. By collaborating with the museum, child development scientists gain access to a wide and diverse audience of potential participants. In addition, collaborating scientists work closely with museum educators to learn how to interpret their research questions and methods for public audiences. In the process, museum educators learn about current research methods and results, which can be incorporated into exhibit design and educational practices. In these ways, scientists are able to integrate professional development and outreach into their research process by recruiting participants and conducting their studies within the museum. Museum visitors contribute to ongoing research in child development, and have one-on-one conversations with working scientists as a seamless part of their visit to the early childhood exhibition. In some cases, challenging questions from visitors or volunteers have inspired scientist collaborators to pursue new research directions.

Benefits to the public: Enhancing the visitor experience with research participation

In Living Laboratory, scientists conduct their research studies in plain view of the public within a children’s exhibition. By placing active research within a family-oriented educational environment, the program breaks down barriers between scientists and the public, creating a unique educational experience for adult visitors that speaks directly to their needs both as caregivers of young children and as life-long learners in their own right. 

Evaluation of Living Laboratory has found that observing children participate in active research studies increases adult visitors’ awareness of and interest in child development as an experimental science. One-on-one conversations with scientists about the questions and methods of the research increase adult visitors’ understanding of the process of scientific discovery (Soren, 2009). By directly engaging museum visitors in scientists’ efforts to learn more about children’s development, adult learners gain access to science and scientists, increasing scientific literacy and fostering science communication on multiple levels. 

Furthermore, the program increases the public’s awareness of psychology as a STEM discipline by taking advantage of adult visitors’ interest in their own children’s cognitive development. In observations of interactions between researchers and caregivers participating in Living Laboratory, discussion topics included: synthesis of a research question, study methodology and nature of the data being collected, differences in study conditions, relevance of particular studies to the wider field of psychology and connections to caregivers every-day lives with their children (Lussenhop, Cahill & Lindren-Streicher, 2013).

The program has been extremely popular with museum visitors. Since 2005, over 54,000 families have spoken with researchers at the MOS, with more than half serving as formal participants in scientists’ ongoing studies, and many others learning about scientists’ research through informal demonstrations.

Benefits to scientists and museum professionals: Mutual professional development 

Living Laboratory embraces a “mutual professional development” philosophy, in which museum educators and scientists share their expertise with one another through a variety of regular interactions. Researchers receive ongoing training in informal education practices from museum educators, improving their ability to discuss their work with the public in accessible, engaging and easily understandable ways. Likewise, museum educators learn about the scientific study of child development, including the methods used by scientists to systematically observe children’s learning — information that can be incorporated into their own interpretive practices and exhibit design efforts. Since 2005, more than 500 researchers have been trained in informal science education practices at the MOS, including scientists at all levels of study (professors, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, undergraduates), and hundreds of staff and volunteer educators have been involved in the Living Laboratory program.

Living Laboratory researchers recruit participants from the dynamic Discovery Center and conduct their studies on the exhibit floor of the exhibit in full-view of the public. Researchers set up their study materials in the modular exhibit space, integrating video and audio equipment as necessary. As in the lab, caregivers are encouraged to observe their child participate without engaging the child, although some researchers use privacy shields to restrict public observation for key parts of the experiment. Researchers then engage caregivers in a debriefing of the study and in a visitor-led conversation that will increase the likelihood that their study experience will be a memorable part of their museum visit. Living Laboratory has hosted research on a wide range of topics, including math and language cognition, causal learning, emotion recognition and social reasoning. At least thirty scientific articles using data collected in the Discovery Center’s Living Laboratory have been accepted for publication in peer-reviewed academic journals.

Extensive evaluation of Living Laboratory has documented measurable positive outcomes for educators and scientists. After a few months of regular interactions with museum educators and visitors, researchers are better able to use lay language to describe their research questions and methods, as well as the practical implications of their work (Soren, 2009). In focus groups, a graduate student conducting research in the program stated: “[I] feel more comfortable talking about my research … more confident as a teacher to undergraduates, after working in the Discovery Center.”

Another benefit of Living Laboratory for researchers is the opportunity to observe children in a naturalistic setting. Peter Blake, long-time Living Laboratory collaborator and assistant professor of psychology at Boston University, reflected on his experience in this way:

“As a graduate student, I learned a huge amount just by watching … the museum is great because you can casually observe parent-child interactions.  When I started to design experiments with Paul [Harris], he would ask [about my] intuition about what children will do or why. You need to develop those intuitions by just being around children a lot. Parents and teachers have some intuitions, but they are too immersed in the reality! I think museum volunteers develop these intuitions too and that tacit knowledge is something they share with the researchers.”

Museum educators have also expressed increased comfort in talking with visitors about child development, and describe changes in their approach to teaching in the exhibit. One volunteer said, “[Living Laboratory] encourages parents to get involved with their kids’ learning in the Discovery Center. It has also helped me reach out and have more fruitful conversations with parents.” Another volunteer remarked, “I have learned a lot — to slow down, give kids a chance, and watch them think.” By drawing on the strengths of research scientists and museum educators, and encouraging ongoing interactions between them, Living Laboratory emphasizes both “the process of science” and “the process of communicating science to the public,” resulting in a more effective educational program for museum visitors (Soren, 2009).

Benefits to youth: Inspiring careers in psychology

In 2012, MOS launched Teen Psych — a program for high school students interested in pursuing a psychological science career. This 10-week internship program is designed to: 

  1. Give upper-level high school students a “crash course” in behavioral research methods. 
  2. Help participants understand the role of research assistants in child development research projects.
  3. Provide participants with opportunities to communicate complex science topics to the public in fun and accessible ways. 
Museum staff help students integrate their experiences — working with Living Laboratory scientists, and with children and caregivers on the exhibit floor — to develop hands-on activities based on completed research studies.

Teen Psych participants report that their experiences working directly with Living Laboratory scientists, and learning to break-down academic publications into chunks that are digestible for the public, have enhanced their knowledge about psychology research and related careers. Participants find it particularly valuable to meet scientists in many different stages of their careers — teens were able to talk with research assistants who were still undergraduates, scientists in the process of getting their PhDs, lab coordinators and professors. Providing teens with access to these varied perspectives helped them understand the field of psychology from different vantage points, and better understand the range of opportunities available for students and professionals interested in psychology. Teens also expressed high enthusiasm for communicating research to parents and other caregivers through hands-on activities that they developed in small teams, recognizing how their efforts supported caregivers in learning about a science that is close to their hearts as parents and guardians of young children.

Collaborator Igor Bascandiev, EdD and museum educator Susan Letourneau, PhD share expertise through Living Laboratory's mutual professional development frameworkA "Teen Psych" participant presents a hands-on child development activity for families visiting the Discovery Center (activity based on Widen & Russell, 2010)

Left photo: Collaborator Igor Bascandiev, EdD, and museum educator Susan Letourneau, PhD, share expertise through Living Laboratory's mutual professional development framework; Right photo: A "Teen Psych" participant presents a hands-on child development activity for families visiting the Discovery Center (activity based on Widen & Russell, 2010). 

The National Living Laboratory project

In recognition of the success of the MOS Living Laboratory, a multi-year project is underway to disseminate the Living Laboratory model to other institutions across the country, and to create a community of scientists and educators who share resources associated with successful collaborations. With support from the NSF, the National Living Laboratory project is bringing psychological science to life for museum-goers across the U.S. and Canada by involving them in the scientific process (NSF grant 1113648, “Broad Implementation: Creating Communities Of Learners For Informal Cognitive Science Education”).

In addition to the Museum of Science, Boston, and our collaborators, the Maryland Science Center, Madison Children’s Museum and Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (in collaboration with their respective partners, Johns Hopkins University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Lewis & Clark College), have adapted and implemented the Living Laboratory framework in their own early childhood exhibitions and now serve as Living Laboratory “hub sites” for disseminating training and educational resources to other museums and academic institutions.

As we scale-up the Living Laboratory model at these and additional sites, we are documenting how each site adapts the essential elements of the model based on its particular mission, structure and scale. Across the project’s hub sites, more than 5,000 families have already participated in Living Laboratory activities with scientists working in the museums’ early childhood exhibitions (see Table 1).


Ongoing evaluation is a key aspect of Living Laboratory model, both at the MOS and as it expands nationally. Formative evaluation at each site examines the visitor experience as well as the mutual professional development model for educators and researchers. It focuses on identifying improvements to how research is interpreted for visitors, both by researchers themselves and by educators, as well as how training and support materials for both professional audiences can be improved.

Although the nature of the museum-academic collaborations differ slightly at each of the hub sites, evaluation during the first year of the program’s national implementation suggests that each of the new sites adopted the model with a high degree of fidelity (Lussenhop, et al, 2013). The partnership logistics and training programs at each National Living Laboratory site have been reviewed and improved upon throughout implementation, with new resources created based on participant needs and shared with the larger National Living Laboratory community.

The project also connects participants to museum and academic professionals who have developed other successful models of collaboration (for examples, see Callanan, 2011). In doing so, we aim to create a nationwide community of learners that bridges learning across museum, lab and home contexts. This community is working to link academic research and educational practice, by developing and documenting best practices in scientist-museum collaborations across a variety of settings. By sharing resources, challenges and solutions, we hope to support the establishment and sustainability of Living Laboratory programs and other unique, long-lived collaborative projects that benefit participating museum professionals, scientists and visitors.

Building the public’s perception of psychology as a STEM discipline will be an easier feat if psychologists become active and visible participants in their community hubs. Collaborating with science museums using the Living Laboratory framework is one vetted method of engaging visitors in the process of science and demonstrating the daily value and impact of psychology at large. If you would like to learn more about the Living Laboratory model, access resources for developing sustainable collaborations, or join the National Living Laboratory community, visit the Living Laboratory website.


We thank our Living Laboratory collaborators at the Museum of Science, Boston: the Social Development and Learning Lab and the Social Learning Lab (Boston University), the MIT Media Lab, the Early Childhood Lab (Harvard Graduate School of Education), the Arts and Minds Lab, the Infant and Child Cognition Lab & the Emotion Development Lab (Boston College), and the Center on Media and Child Health (Boston Children's Hospital). We also thank Peter Blake for his thoughtful comments during the preparation of this article. The work described here was supported by National Science Foundation grants 0714706 and 1113648.


The American Psychological Association and the Living Laboratory at the Museum of Science, Boston, co-sponsored an exhibit at the 2012 USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo and are planning to co-sponsor an exhibit at the expo again in 2014.


American Psychological Association Task Force (2010). Psychology as a core science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) discipline (PDF, 113KB). 

Bascandziev, I. & Harris, P.L. (2010). The role of testimony in young children’s solution of a gravity-driven invisible displacement task. Cognitive Development, 25: 233-246.

Bascandziev, I. & Harris, P.L. (2011). Gravity is not the only ruler for falling events: Young children stop making the gravity error after receiving additional perceptual information about the tubes mechanism. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 109(4): 468-477.

Blake, P.R. & Rand, D.G. (2010). Currency value moderates equity preference among young children. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(3): 210-218.

Callanan, M.A.  (2012). Conducting cognitive development research in museums: Theoretical issues and practical applications. Journal of Cognition and Development, 13:2, 137-151.

Lussenhop, C., Cahill, C.; Lindgren-Streicher, A. (2013). National Living Lab Broad Implementation, Year 1 formative evaluation of “Creating Communities of Learners for Informal Cognitive Science Education” (PDF, 497KB) (NSF-AISL grant #1113648).

Soren, B.J. (2009). Summative evaluation of “A Participatory Model for Integrating Cognitive Research into Exhibits for Children (PDF, 3.21MB) (NSF-ISE grant # 0714706). 

Widen, S. C. and Russell, J. A. (2010), Children's scripts for social emotions: Causes and consequences are more central than are facial expressions. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28: 565–581.

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