The Free-Choice Learning Laboratory at HMSC

Informal science education research

The Free-Choice Learning Laboratory at HMSC

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You know you’ve been in grad school too long when…

It is official, I have been in graduate school too long. It has started to change the way I think about the world!

Last night, I was at a local Science Pub event. This in and of itself, might trigger the “nerd” label for some people, but as a fairly educated person before starting this PhD, and living in a liberal, college town, lots of types of people attend these events now.  Science Pubs are almost trendy these days. Our local one is often standing room only, and takes place in a venue that is used frequently for concerts, fund-raisers and shows of all kinds.  Even the name of the venue is cool- Cozmic Pizza- you can have pizza and a beer and listen to smart people talk.  Not a bad way to spend an weekday evening.  Also, the topic was not even that fringe- “You Are What You Eat: The Evolutionary Importance of Diet in Mammals”.  The talk was given by a local professor, Dr. Samantha Hopkins, who is in the Geology Department at the University of Oregon. While her work is often in paleontology, she is a self-described “mammal geek” and her talk was peppered with lots of funny anecdotes and plenty of cute photos of mammals (none of which my partner would agree to let me get as a pet… sigh…)

All of this was a pleasant experience. I learned a few things, laughed a few times, and enjoyed a glass of Kombucha. However, it was during the question and answer phase that the wheels in my head started spinning.  While gender issues in science are not a particular area of study for me, it does come up in my department on a fairly regular basis, and both my daughters are just starting to explore gender issues through courses in their own college experience, so it is on my radar. Yet, it took me a bit to realize, “hmm… so far, all of the people who have asked questions are guys” and I thought, “I am going to pay attention to this and see if it continues.”  It is probably no big surprise to anyone that it did continue.  Out of around 12 questions (I didn’t start counting until I had my observation, so I had to make a best guess about the total number), only 2 were asked by women, much later in the Q & A session. To make matters even sadder, one of the women qualified her question by stating “this is probably a dumb question” as she asked it.  So, I did a scan of the room, and while I did not do a full head count, it seemed that pretty close to 50% of the audience was female.  Furthermore, this was a completely free-choice experience, in a social setting, with alcohol available to loosen social inhibitions, and the topic was even more focused on biology- an area females typically express a slightly higher interest in than males.

While I may have previously made an observation like this, and possibly gone on a slight feminist rant about it, what was truly surprising to me was my next thought.  Where my mind went next was “it would be pretty easy to design a research project to explore this more in depth.” We could have people do gender counts when people walk in the door and then keep track of how many questions were asked by each (notice I am also consciously using gender as opposed to sex, as we could only make a best guess by appearances, without doing a more involved study- grad school is teaching me so much about so many things!).  We could compare this data across different locations, different topics of Science Pubs, we could try to look at different age groups- there are all kinds of interesting questions to explore! And the fact that I now think of more explicit ways to explore them, instead of just a curious observation, was a sign to me that I just might have been in grad school too long.

PS- and the next sign was that my first thought about it this morning was, “and I could write a Blog post about it”!

Reflections on COSIA and Family Science Night

This quarter I took the COSIA (Communicating Ocean Science to Informal Audiences) course taught by Shawn.  He had a role in designing this class with staff from the Lawrence Hall of Science at University of California Berkeley and several other COSIA partners around the country.  This course is excellent for grad students in the science and formal education fields to learn about ocean science concepts, gain instructional and facilitation strategies for informal settings, and apply their skills towards effective activity design.  I have experience facilitating marine science activities at outdoor schools and at aquariums, but this class gave more insight on HOW people learn in these settings.  Reading and discussing learning theory with classmates was beneficial to improving my abilities as a facilitator while focusing on how to support a learner-driven experience.

Our challenge was to design an activity that was “minds-on” and hands-on.  Susan and I thought about topics that were abstract and that we could attempt to model them for better visualization.  Our plan was to provide views of the concept from different perspectives and allow for the discussion of what people already knew.  We started with plankton, a significant component of the marine ecosystem, and decided on an exploration of photosynthesis, the oxygen cycle, and connections to phytoplankton.  Our overall activity consisted of four stations:  learners could think about the proportion of water to land in terms of surface area, comparisons between the ocean and land with regards to net photosynthesis, a visual mapping of terms related to the oxygen cycle, and a station with a plankton sample to look at under the microscope.  We took our activity to the Visitor Center at Hatfield Marine Science Center which allowed us to test and prototype “in the wild.”  This was an incredibly helpful exercise as we found out what was confusing or needed to be refined prior to others attempting to replicate it.  The public gave us helpful feedback that allowed us to improve our work and participants were excited to help.

The COSIA course culminated with Family Ocean Science Night.  It was fun to have a variety of ages engage in all of the activities designed by students in the class.  Many of the participants were drawn to the tools like the microscope.  There is always an element of mystery as to what you will see when you look through the eyepieces.  I was especially inspired by a conversation I heard between two boys, in which one was took the role of facilitator for the activity.  He did not want to “tell” the other how to get to the answer, but was ready help if there were any questions.  Hooray for our future generation of science lovers and science communicators!

On behalf of the COSIA class we are grateful to the many families that came out to participate in our Ocean Science Night!  Thank you for letting us practice our skills and for your constructive feedback!

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Big Day

Today I passed my finals. I now have my M.S. in Free-Choice Learning Science Education.

I want to thank everyone who made this possible—my friends, my colleagues, my family, my research participants and you. Yes, you! Frankly, I’m still processing this. I have much to do yet.

First off, I’m releasing Deme v. 1.1, as of today under the GNU Free Documentation License. You can share, modify and expand the rule system freely, as long as you retain my Creator’s Note regarding its intent. It’s not done—it may never be “done” in the traditional sense. I want you to take it, break it, fix it, shrink it, expand it, apply it, learn with it, teach with it and—most importantly—share what you do with others.

This is, I like to think, the start of the story. Let’s write it together. To get started, I’ll provide the current iteration of the rule system here as a new post in a few minutes.

Have fun.

It is not always about numbers!

The challenges of integrating the natural and social sciences are not news to us. After King, Keohane and Verba’s (KKV’s) book entitled “Designing Social Inquiry”, the field of qualitative methodology has achieved considerable attention and development. Their work generated great discussions about qualitative studies, as well as criticism, and sometimes misguided ideas that qualitative research is benefited by quantitative approaches but not the other way around. Since then, discussions in the literature debate the contrasts between observations of qualitative vs. quantitative studies, regression approaches vs. theoretical work, and the new approaches to mixed-methods design. Nevertheless, there are still many research frontiers for qualitative researchers to cross and significant resistance from existing conservative views of science, which question the validity of qualitative results.

Last week, while participating in the LOICZ symposium (Land-Ocean Interactions in the Coastal Zone) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I was very encouraged by the apparent move towards an integrated approach between the natural and social sciences. There were many important scientists from all over the world and from many different disciplines discussing the Earth systems and contributing steps towards sustainability of the world’s coastal zone. Many of the students’ presentations, including mine, had some social research component. I had many positive conversations about the Cyberlab work in progress and how it sits at the edge of building capacity for scientists/researchers, educators, exhibit designers, civil society, etc.

However, even in this meeting, over dinner conversation, I stumbled into the conflicting views that are a part of the quantitative vs. qualitative debate – the understanding of scientific process as ”only hypothesis driven”, where numbers and numbers alone offer the absolute “truth”. It is still a challenge for me not to become extremely frustrated while having to articulate the importance of social science in this case and swim against a current of uneducated opinions about the nature of what we do and disregard for what it ultimately accomplishes. I think it is more than proven in today’s world that understanding the biogeophysics of the Earth’s systems is essential, but that alone won’t solve the problems underlying the interaction of the natural and social worlds.  We cannot move towards a “sustainable future” without the work of social scientists, and I wish there would be more of a consensus about its place and importance within the natural science community.

So, in the spirit of “hard science”…

If I can’t have a research question, here are the null and alternative hypotheses I can investigate:

H0 “Moving towards a sustainable future is not possible without the integration of natural and social sciences”.

H1  “Moving towards a sustainable future is possible without the integration of natural and social science”

Although, empirical research can NEVER prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that a comparison is true (95 and 99% probability only), I think you would agree that, if these hypotheses could be tested, we would fail to reject the null.

With all that being said, I emphasize here today the work Cyberlab is doing and what it will accomplish in the future, sitting at the frontiers of marine science and science education. Exhibits such as the wave laboratory, the climate change exhibit on the works, the research already completed in the lab, the many projects and partnerships, etc. , are  prime examples of that. Cyberlab is contributing to a collaborative effort to the understanding and dissemination of marine and coastal issues, and building capacity to create effective steps towards sustainable land-ocean interactions.

I am very happy to be a part of it!

 

Cyberlab goes international again….

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   http://www.loicz.org/about_us/index.html.en  

Stay tuned for twitter posts from Brazil!

Susan

Talk the talk

How did I learn to communicate scientific information to the public? While I was working towards my bachelor’s degree in biology I started working as an interpreter at a city park in Indianapolis.  The position was advertised through the university’s biology department and I decided it’d be a great way to get involved in the community. A lot of what I did was nature hikes with home-schooled youth, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, and a few family events. My knowledge about indigenous plants and animals grew every week (i.e. I learned a lot of content). While I simultaneously gained confidence talking to people, I received very little training on how to communicate. The experience, however, was a driving force for where I am now – environmental education. My communication knowledge and skills have developed in recent years from coursework and from having Shawn as a mentor.

How can we teach others to communicate science to the public? As Laia stated last week, we led a workshop about outreach. We focused on questioning, observing, and reflecting and the workshop seemed well received. During a small group discussion, some scholars and I talked about how to start a conversation with a stranger, engage kids with complicated science concepts, and how to talk to someone who is aggressive and says your research is wrong. These are all important and relevant topics, which we addressed using past experiences and how those experiences were handled. Hopefully the workshop is a stepping-stone for the scholars as they continue to think about and pursue outreach and communication opportunities. You can visit their blog to see what they had to say about communicating science at daVinci Days (a Corvallis event).

So, how did you learn to communicate science to the public?

Let there be Communication!!

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.

Abandoned Ship

Last weekend there was a wonderful free choice learning event at Lincoln City Oregon – The Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition.  It was so much fun to watch and perform the role of judge.  This is an event that is sponsored by the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center and numerous local and national sponsors.  The most interesting thing to me is the level of excitement that surrounds these events from all involved.  However today I am going to write about one particular participant from last Saturday’s event.  This particular sophomore chaired his team for the Rovers portion of the competition which meant they were competing at the level to win the only slot to move forward to the international competition and prize money to help offset costs.  This particular participant had a serious of events on Saturday that would make any person, young or old most likely walk away from the competition.  In my mind his actions truly embodied what it means to be a good sport, but the aspects of free choice learning. 

First of all during the debriefing it was clear that another team his team was competing against had not brought all their materials nor had they read the rules.  I instantly offered to share his supplies and the printed out materials with them which he was not required to do.  When the head judge said he did nto have to do that, the instructions were clear online, he said it is all for learning and fun isn’t it – I’m I allowed to share.  We said sure.  Next thing, his team members did not show up.  This meant that he was instantly disqualified if he did not have at least one more person with him “on deck” for the trails and for the competition.  He enlisted the help of one of his family members.  The judges told him that he still mostly would not advance as the team had changed from the date of submission.  He said ok, but can I still go through the event.  Yes was the answer.  Next his ROV did not meet specs.  He was given 20 minutes to alter it – he did it passed.  He proceeded with the trails and placed higher then I actually thought his ROV could achieve.  Impressive driving for the limited machine.  However this is not all, he watched other competitors, cheered the younger competitors on.  Walked around and read the various posters that other teams produced and encouraged the other teams throughout the event.  When chatting with him, he remarked about how much fun this was and how much he was learning.  All on his own choice!  He didn’t win, he didn’t make the paper, but his actions stood out enough that he was voted to receive a Spirit Award that he did not know even existed.  Congratulations – “Abandoned Ship”

Unexpected but pleasant revelations: Brazilian museum learning research

OK… I owe you all an update from my very productive Brazilian trip and conference presentations. All in all things went really well. All of my 4 presentations were  very well attended and people were not just amazed by the research potential of the Cyberlab but also excited about the possibilities of my research in Brazil. I spent just as much time answering questions as I spent actually presenting, which I think is a good indicator (and yes I answered lots of questions about “IRB” related stuff although not actually called RIB in Brazil).

I was extremely impressed with the level of research being done there. While doing literature reviews here I had a very hard time finding stuff online and having access to citations I knew existed. There is a serious problem of visibility for Brazilian publications not only outside the country’s realm but also within the national research groups doing this kind of research. Therefore, I had a very erroneous idea about the status of museum learning research in Brazilian settings. I really thought they were further behind than they really are. This first international workshop of research in museum education in Sao Paulo was not only crucial for me to be able to network and get involved with the group of museum learning researchers in Brazil but, more importantly,  it gave me a clear understanding of the historical development of museum studies in Brazil, their advancements, challenges and needs for future research (which will immensely influence decisions on my research questions).

Overall,  the status of current museum learning debate is very similar to what we experience here in the US. The same kinds of challenges were put into perspective during the event. There were robust discussions about the definition of learning, the learning theories influencing frameworks for research, where many people referred to the contextual model of learning and YES our  well debated “Vygotsky” came to surface in one of the sessions I participated – THANKS SHAWN for theory meetings! The role of the museum as a “non-formal” setting (as they called instead of informal) and the role of its educators was also largely debated. It was brought up the need for more partnerships between formal and “non-formal” institutions, form more research to identify Brazilian museum common and uncommon audiences and develop strategies to bring scarce audiences such as general family groups to the museum floor.

They also want to shy away from research that only incorporate cognitive aspects of learning to also include affective, aesthetic and other important aspects of cultural and social upbringing, which lead to conversations about the need for more studies on mediation processes and tools, reflecting on practice and inclusion research. I would say “inclusion” is the hot topic at the moment and I may even infer that they have done much more in terms of inclusion research and action than the US has. I was very impressed with the level of knowledge  and experience coming from all participating groups which composed a very diverse audience by the way. Participants included college professors and researchers, graduate students, museum administrators, staff and educators, school teachers, journalists involved with science communication, social inclusion related professionals and so on.

It was an incredibly rich and eye-opening experience for me, putting interdisciplinary initiatives into perspective and raising the issue to everyone participating that more conferences, workshops, and other events as such are in great need for the museum learning research community in Brazil, in order for them to develop better ways of communicating, exchanging efforts and making research results and methodologies available and visible to all community.

I was able to meet my co-advisor and network with many other international and national professionals and graduate students in the field, some who are excited to cooperate with my research and work as mediators when I am not physically there. I am now part of the “GEENF”  - the translation of the acronym stands for “Non-Formal Education and Science Divulgation Research Group”. It was created in 2002 and it is associated with the Science and Math Education Department at the University  of Sao Paulo (USP), partnering with many museums and research institutions, National and International. Here is a link for more information in you wish to adventure into portuguese - http://www.geenf.fe.usp.br/v2/.

It was just great for me to realize I can have a job back home when I graduate, specially when they need many more trained, knowledgable and experienced professionals in the field doing research, partnering with international institutions for cross-cultural research and replication of methodologies applied elsewhere and use of state-of- the-art technology.  Creating a partnership between Hatfield and my research site (as off now the Ubatuba Aquarium in Sao Paulo) is not too far in the horizon for me anymore and, if it gets out of paper successfully,  it has the potential to bring great benefits to both sides involved. I will be applying for some grants here soon, wish me luck!

Susan

Encouraging Visitor Reflection around STEM

Do visitors use STEM reasoning when describing their work in a build-and-test exhibit? This is one of the first research questions we’re investigating as part of the Cyberlab grant, besides whether or not we can make this technology integration work. As with many other parts of this grant, we’re designing the exhibit around the ability to ask and answer this question, so Laura and I are working on designing a video reflection booth for visitors to tell us about what happened to the structures they build and knock down in the tsunami tank. Using footage from the overhead camera, visitors will be able to review what happens, and hopefully tell us about why they created what they did, whether or not they expected it to survive or fail, and how the actual result fit or didn’t match what they hoped for.

We have a couple of video review and share your thoughts examples we drew from; The Utah Museum of Natural History has an earthquake shake table where you build and test a structure and then can review footage of it going through the simulated quake. The California Science Center’s traveling exhibit Goosebumps: the Science of Fear also allows visitors to view video of expressions of fear from themselves and other visitors filmed while they are “falling”. However, we want to take these a step farther and add the visitor reflection piece, and then allow visitors to choose to share their reflections with other visitors as well.

As often happens, we find ourselves with a lot of creative ways to implement this, and ideas for layer upon layer of interactivity that may ultimately complicate things, so we have to rein our ideas in a bit to start with a (relatively) simple interaction to see if the opportunity to reflect is fundamentally appealing to visitors. Especially when one of our options is around $12K – no need to go spending money without some basic questions answered. Will visitors be too shy to record anything, too unclear about the instructions to record anything meaningful, or just interested in mooning/flipping off/making silly faces at the camera? Will they be too protective of their thoughts to share them with researchers? Will they remain at the build-and-test part forever and be uninterested in even viewing the replay of what happened to their structures? Avoiding getting ahead of ourselves and designing something fancy before we’ve answered these basic questions is what makes prototyping so valuable. So our original design will need some testing with probably a simple camera setup and some mockups of how the program will work for visitors to give us feedback before we go any farther with the guts of the software design. And then eventually, we might have an exhibit that allows us to investigate our ultimate research question.

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