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Learning in human-dolphin interactions at zoological facilities


This research aimed to better understand learning in zoological settings, particularly learning about marine mammals, by investigating the research question, what do people learn through interacting with dolphins in zoological facilities? Sociocultural situated learning theory, specifically a Community of Practice (CoP) model of learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991), was the theoretical framework. The CoP model allowed for diversity of knowledge, interest, motivations, and goals that existed among the community of animal enthusiasts at three commercial zoological facilities, and also for peripheral to more central types of participation. I collected data through interviews of spectators, visitors, and trainers (n=51), observations (n=16), and an online questionnaire of past-visitors (n=933). Data were coded, categorized, and analyzed based on the National Science Foundation's (Friedman, 2008) and the National Research Council's (2009) frameworks for informal science education. Five principal findings answered the research question. First, all participants gained new knowledge within three broad categories: (a) dolphin physiology and natural history, (b) care and training of dolphins, and (c) conservation. Second, all participants constructed personal meanings by connecting the activity to experiences, beliefs, and practices outside the interaction context. Almost all participants made associations with conservation. Third, most participants shifted their attitudes and gained a sense of personal agency about beginning or increasing stewardship actions. Fourth, visitors learned interspecies etiquette skills; trainers learned skills in dolphin training and management, people management, and teaching. Fifth, visitors had long-lasting memories of the experience that occurred eight months to 18 years in the past. Popular cultural ideas about dolphins and the ways the dolphins were represented influenced visitors' expectations and the types of learning. Potential physical mediators of learning were close proximity to living dolphins and eye-to-eye immersion. Potential social mediators were membership in the CoP, and interacting with experts and co-participants. In the personal realm, potential mediators were the participants' strong affective responses to the experience, including interest, engagement, positive emotions, and feelings of affinity to the dolphins. The collective influences appeared to move participants towards stronger identities as environmentally-caring and responsible individuals who take stewardship action

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