On the need for expanded guidance in navigating ethical learning research at science museums

Shannon K. McManimon, SUNY New Paltz
Lauren Causey, Augsburg University
Zdanna King, Science Museum of Minnesota
Evelyn C. Ronning, Science Museum of Minnesota
Marjorie B. Bequette, Science Museum of Minnesota


Science learning occurs throughout people's lives, inside and outside of school, in formal, informal, and nonformal settings. While museums have long played a role in science education, learning in this and other informal settings has not been studied nor understood as deeply as in formal settings (i.e., schools and classrooms). This position paper, written by learning researchers in a science museum engaged in equity and access work, notes that while the researchers consider the ethics of their work regularly and deeply, little formal guidance exists for the ethical challenges they routinely face in studying science learning. To explore this, the paper first shares contexts of studying informal science education at the Science Museum of Minnesota, including epistemological understandings of both science and research, a commitment to justice-based equity, and existing ethical guidance and processes. Drawing on three research projects, it explores ethical issues pertaining to (a) museum visitors and (b) museum staff and community members engaging in participatory research. First, as visitors do not generally come to a museum to be part of a research study, learning researchers must consider sampling, representation, and data collection methods, balancing these with a museum-goer's desires for their visit. Second, when using participatory methodologies with staff, community members, and young people as co-researchers, ethical considerations involve building relationships, redefining (unanticipated) risks, and data collection and dissemination practices that do not extend existing social inequities or work hierarchies. Ultimately, this position paper argues for expanded or revised ethical guidance that meets the needs of this work, surpasses current guidelines or institutional review board practices, draws on epistemologies outside of a supposedly neutral, individualistic Western framework, and places participants at the center of the work. Such a discussion could enhance the ethical study of science learning across settings.