So, I have a follow up to my last post about my foray into Making. Let’s return to the scene when I had gone back to the site of the first workshop I had fled, where I eventually tried my hand at Scratch and the cute, little Bee Bot. I previously mentioned that I spent some time just tinkering with the Bee Bot. I didn’t see any directions, but jumped in anyway and tried to figure it out. I did get some “peer to peer” mentoring from someone else who stopped by while I was exploring, and I was quite content to just play with figuring out how to program it to take different paths. It is a fairly simple robot, as far as robots go. It has four arrows on its’ back, in the four cardinal directions, with a “go” button in the center of those. From searching the internet, I found out that there are two more buttons, “clear” and “pause”, however, on the one I was using, those words were rubbed off, or it was an older version that had some other symbols instead of the words that were not intuitive to me. To program it, you touch an arrow the number of times you want it to go in that direction, building a sequence, and then press “go”.

There I was, on the floor, by myself, fairly happily trying to make it go in different directions and different shapes. In one of these iterations, I had it turn left and travel off the mat on which it normally runs, as I was working towards having it go in a square shape. At this point, one of the facilitators/presenters for the session walked by and noticed what I was doing. I am sure she had the best intentions of giving me more technical language about what I was doing when she commented “looks like you have a syntax error”, but the effect was to make me feel incompetent. It is pretty pathetic. I am a 46 year old woman, almost finished with my PhD, who has raised two amazing young women to adulthood, and taught elementary and middle school students for over a decade. I am a competent, relatively bright, and accomplished human being! However, I immediately shut down when someone told me, in a way that made me feel “dumb” that I had made an error with an educational toy designed for young children. So, once again, I packed up my belongings and left the room.

It has been interesting to reflect on my reaction. From the first, I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable with so many activities and materials in the room with which I was unfamiliar and inexperienced. Lame as it may sound, it did take an act of courage for me to come back and finally sit down and try some of these things by myself, not just watching others. And, I tried not just one, or two, but three new things that day. Yet, at the first sign of perceived judgment about my “failure” I felt terrible and left. I didn’t react that way when my “near peer” sat and offered suggestions to help me figure out how to “clear” the programs to make a new one, but when it was someone who was in more of a position of authority, I was shut down.

Lest you worry that it curbed my adventurousness, the universe generously offered me yet another Maker experience that day, creating the functional chair out of cardboard. This time, I didn’t even try to resist and claim the offered role of observer. Instead, I just laughed and accepted my fate and went and gathered materials.

I hope I remember the deeper lesson I learned that day – even when I am giving what I think might be helpful language or advice, if a learner does not want it, I might do more harm than good. And when someone is at the edge of their own boundaries, even if it might just be baby steps into something new, that is a vulnerable place and they need extra space and support. Lastly, even grownups, who are competent in lots of other ways, can be insecure learners in that space of trying something for the first time too.

As it is the holiday time of year, this month’s post will be a short bit of fluff, as opposed to the longer bits of fluff I usually write. I am a reader. If it comes in my mailbox, or I pick it up from a newsstand, I will probably read it. This often leads to interesting things coming into my mind and life.

Recently, my older daughter’s university magazine arrived, and being me, I read it. The thing that caught my attention this time was the centerfold bit. They had taken photos of a bookshelf from a variety of professors and wanted you to match the book collection to the academic. I did read the short bios and thought about which books likely matched their interests, but the part that has stuck with me is the way we can represent ourselves, or make assumptions about others, based on their book shelves. I don’t know about you, but I love to look at the books on display in public spaces in other people’s homes, and as a fan of the selfie shot, this is an idea I am a fan of all around.
As I mentioned last month, I have recently relocated. I don’t just hold on to recipes, I also hold on to books. However, moving from a 3,000 square foot house to a two bedroom apartment made me think long and hard about what books I just “had” to have with me for this interim housing. As an academic, I have a collection of books that are relevant to my research interests and had to come along for practical reasons. However, I also insisted on bringing a sampling of the books that helped define me- the books that I might never read again, but I will probably carry around with me for the rest of my life.

So, I will share two photos with you all, my personal shelfie and my academic shelfie, and I hope to inspire many of you to post yours on twitter! If you @FreeChoiceLab us, we will get to see and share this part of our lives. Could be fun! Oh, and happy holidays- whatever you celebrate!

PS- Michelle Mileham posted the original “shelfie” with her cookbook blog last year!



It is really easy, during the course of graduate school, to let a great many things in our lives fall by the wayside. There’s always something to read, a constant stream of emails, projects to plan, and mountains of data to plow through. Oral exams, proposal meetings, all of the writing…most days it piles on until we have to put “EAT LUNCH!!!” on our to-do lists to make sure we don’t pass out from hunger. We spend so much time on being a graduate student that we lose site of the fact that we are people who have needs beyond the next peer reviewed article.

There are lots of places where people have expounded on the importance of sleep and healthy eating for optimal brain function, but there’s more to being healthy than just those. Whole person health requires that we spend some of our time on activities that fulfill some portion of our broader identity than just “grad student.” I specifically mean hobbies, the rejuvenating experiences that remind us of who we are and what we want out of life. Sadly, these are usually the first things to get cut from our overburdened schedules. (I’m only going to mention in passing that there are also horrible people who will say that having hobbies is a “waste of time.” Personally, I think these people are a “waste of space” and won’t give them any more of my time).

I know from experience that I go a special kind of nuts if I go too long without indulging in one of my hobbies. That’s why I endeavor to

A sock in progress
A sock in progress

have a knitting project with me at all times. I can usually manage to squeeze in a row or two to help “take the edge off” during the day.

But, just as we stagnate if we don’t move forward with our research, I had begun to feel stagnant in the rest of my life. Get up, do work, read things, knit some, play with the cat, eat, and sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat. And, since I’m a whole person, when I feel stagnant or restricted in one area of my life, it has a ripple effect through the rest.

Kodak Brownie Reflex, circa 1940-1942
Kodak Brownie Reflex, circa 1940-1942

For as long as I can remember I’ve had an interest in and affinity for photography. I had plastic 110mm cameras as a child, bought my first SLR at 17, drove my mother nuts with the amounts of film I went through, and I collect vintage cameras.

Last weekend we had our annual lab retreat, and we went “camping” at a state park a little west of Portland (we stayed in cabins with electricity and heat and had proper meals, which is as close as I’m willing to get to actual camping). I brought along my little camera (Canon PhotoShot Elph 100HS). This has been my primary camera since August 2011, and I’ve done some spectacular photography with it (considering its limitations). At the retreat, I had the opportunity to shoot a few frames with a friend’s Canon SLR and folks, it ignited a fire in me that is still burning. Yesterday I checked out 17 items on digital photography from our local library (libraries are perhaps the greatest FCL resource available, and yet so under sung).

Library Books
Library Books



I feel energized, awake (awake helps), and there’s so much energy it’s surging through to the grad student part of my life. Because that’s the trick about whole person health. You can’t feel great if there’s a part of of your life that isn’t working out. And I know that graduate school (like so many things) requires compromise and sacrifice, but we shouldn’t have to compromise our identities or sacrifice our happiness.

Now all that’s left is to read/watch all of these in the 2-4 weeks I have them on loan…anyone know how to bend time?

It is probably not a mystery to anyone who knows me, but I have a complicated relationship with the Make movement.  Make is, in my opinion, an fascinating form of free choice learning. It grew out of the (computer) Hacker movement and has evolved to include all kinds of do it your self kind of projects- from building your own 3-D printer at home to keeping bees.  If you have ever seen any old “Popular Mechanics” magazines, full of projects to do at home, you will have a sense of Make Magazine, which has been in publication since 2005.  From this beginning, as well as a very interactive and content rich website, a whole community has sprouted up around the world, with local Maker Spaces for regular meet-ups as well as annual Maker Faire events that have the subtitle “the greatest Show and Tell on Earth”. What Make realized, from their start with the magazine and website, is that people wanted more than a “Do it Yourself” (DIY) lifestyle- they wanted to come together in community and share skills and tools and a communal space to work on larger and group projects- more of a “Do it with Others” (DIWO) style. Currently, there are hundreds of MakerSpaces around the world and more Maker Faire events happening in places from New York to Eugene to Tokyo.

In the last few years, they have also started reaching out more deliberately to youth, with the MakerEd initiative (yes, they do work the “Make” thing a bit too much, even for my taste!).  Realizing that most young people do not have access to Make experiences or much in the way of hands on learning, they have taken this on, creating a system of mentor training, a summer Maker Camp offered through the Google Plus/Hangout platform with new projects every day for a month, as well as organizing Maker Faires to be family friendly events.  I think it is one of the most exciting things happening in learning right now.

So, back to my opening comment- why is my relationship with Make a complicated one? Well, in all honesty, I am not really a Maker- I just don’t have much of a desire to get in there and build things or interact with computers any more than I have to, so I sometimes feel like a poser.  I do knit and crochet, so can work the craft angle, and am getting more into the homestead lifestyle as I get older and my priorities shift around. But, I am a Make enthusiast! I have spoken about it, or presented posters at 4 conferences and counting and try to let people know about it whenever appropriate. A telling comment was at the AAPT conference this summer, when someone asked me what my relationship or role is with Make, and the first answer that came to me was, “well, I am a Make evangelist”.  I do want to get the word out and get people excited and involved in helping create these experiences for learners of all ages.

Thus, while I might never pick up a soldering gun, you will find me helping build this community in as many ways as I can. Keep your eyes open- there is Making happening everywhere!

Peace, Jen

And the Cyberlab is again “going abroad”….Field trip to Brazil anyone?

I will be presenting about my proposed research and the work of cyberlab at a LOICZ (Land-Ocean interaction at the Coastal Zone) Symposium in Rio next week. LOICZ is a core project of the international Biosphere-Geosphere Programme (IGBP) and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP). The goal of LOICZ is to contribute to science development towards understanding the earth’s systems in order to inform and contribute to sustainable practices and educate the public about the world’s coastal zones.

As one of 8 young Brazilian social and natural scientists funded to participate, I will have the great opportunity to share my research project and the work of cyberlab,  to gain insights onto their global research program as it relates to the themes of the “Future Earth” Programme and contribute to discussions with the LOICZ Steering Committee. The Future Earth themes are:

1.Dynamic Planet: Observing, explaining, understanding, and projecting earth, environmental, and societal system trends, drivers and processes and their interactions as well as anticipating global thresholds and risks.

2.Global development: Knowledge for the pressing needs of humanity for sustainable, secure and fair stewardship of food, water, biodiversity, energy, materials and other ecosystem functions and services.

3.Transformation towards Sustainability: Understanding transformation processes and options, assessing how these relate to human values and behaviour, emerging technologies and social and economic development pathways, and evaluating strategies for governing and managing the global environment across sectors and scales.

Can you think of links/ associations between their themes and the various research works taking place within the lab?  The event funders agreed the work we do fits right within their mission and they are very excited to learn more about the potential for an interdisciplinary  research platform that the cyberlab represents. I have to say,  I was happy to see they are not only valuing the inputs of students/young scientists within their large discussions and initiatives for the Future Earth Programme, but also the inputs of social scientists and learning researchers as ourselves. I am very happy to be a part of this.

If you want to learn more about LOICZ visit  

Stay tuned for twitter posts from Brazil!


Today I had the opportunity to do an “outreach about outreach” activity with a group of undergraduate Sea Grant Scholars. They are going to be volunteering at a local annual festival called Da Vinci Days, which celebrates art and science in honor of Leonardo da Vinci. After a brief presentation and chat session, we did the ever-popular ice melting in fresh and salt water, complete with food dye (my fingers are lovely green now). They seemed to receive it well, if a bit quietly. My past experience working with STEM undergraduates was very similar – they rather passively take in the information about communication.

Personally I think that all science undergraduates should have training in science communication, and more than just a workshop or two. There’s no way to stress how important it is to be able to converse about the work being done with more than just other scientists. Heck, there are even communication barriers between the sciences. Public perception of scientists remains remarkably static, and in large part I think it’s the lack of communication ability on the part of the scientists that supports this stagnation. And science supports the habit of poor communication skills within itself by not assigning it any importance, as reflected in its lack in the formal education process of science. There needs to be a greater push to support communication within science, since collaboration is the wave of the future, and with non-scientists to help change the public perception (misperception) of scientists.