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Race: Are We So Different?

[2007]
A summative evaluation for a professional association
American Anthropological Association, Arlington, VA

RACE: Are We So Different? is a NSF-funded exhibition that demonstrates that race is a socially constructed concept and not biologically determined.  The American Anthropological Association (AAA) co-developed the exhibition with the Science Museum of Minnesota.  RK&A conducted evaluations throughout development; below we focus on summative evaluation.

How did we approach this study?

We used the remedial evaluation to assist us in designing the summative evaluation.  RK&A conducted 25 in-depth exit interviews to explore how visitors understood and processed the exhibition’s “big idea” (noted above).  Unlike many science exhibitions where visitors have little or no knowledge about a topic, all visitors to RACE have some pre-conceived ideas about race.  Given that the remedial interviews were exit interviews, we could not be sure what visitors meant when they said the exhibition ideas were not new to them. Thus, for the summative evaluation we studied whether visitors experienced a complete shift in beliefs, a more fully articulated understanding, or simply an affirmation of a hunch.  To guide instrument design and analysis, RK&A created rubrics that described visitors’ understanding of race and human variation.  For each visitor outcome, the rubric included a continuum of understandings on a scale from 1 to 3 (1= naïve/misconception /
3 = accomplished understanding).  RK&A used the data from the remedial interviews and feedback from AAA’s advisor to develop the rubrics.  The interviews provided qualitative data and the rubric provided quantitative data. 

What did we learn?

RK&A conducted 178 interviews.  Approximately one-third were conducted before visitors went to the exhibition, one-third after visitors left the exhibition, and one-third a few weeks after visitors had been to the exhibition.  The exhibition had a statistically significant impact on the way visitors conceived of the idea of race: more visitors who had seen the exhibition, compared to those who did not, understood that race is a recent human invention that is not biological and that humans are much more genetically alike than different.  Also, in telephone interviews conducted weeks later, interviewees still talked about their experience in detail and maintained their enthusiasm for the exhibition and their understanding that race is a recent human invention. Nevertheless, findings also indicate that even though many left the exhibition understanding the big idea, some did not fully understand the supporting ideas about institutional racism.  This paradox suggests a tension in visitors’ understanding—although most grew in their understanding of race, their deeper understanding remained conflicted.  This is not surprising, given the complexity of ideas presented in the exhibition and that these ideas are incongruous with conversations about race in America.

What are the implications of the findings?

Using rubrics allowed us to detect the subtle differences in impact much more effectively than conventional evaluation strategies would have allowed.  This exhibition helped many visitors who entered the exhibition with conflicted ideas of race understand that race is a recent human invention with no biological basis.  This finding is extraordinary and indicates that RACE Are We So Different? provided visitors with information, evidence, and thinking tools necessary to leap from vague, confused beliefs about race to a more sophisticated understanding of race.

The full report can be read at www.informalscience.org.

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