There’s nothing like a little guilt to set you on a new path. My adventures with writing these blog posts actually started because I felt guilty that some members of the Free Choice Learning Lab were doing a lot more to contribute to the group than I tend to do.  Part of that is because I have historically been a bit of an interloper in the lab group anyway.  Even though it is called the Free Choice Lab group, it has predominantly been comprised of the grad students working with Shawn Rowe, mostly out at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, and the few of us who work with other FCL faculty and projects have always been welcome to attend any of the group’s events (and I have felt welcome!), but we were outsiders.  While this is currently changing and the other FCL groups are being more actively included in the webpage and such, this is how it has been for most of my time at Oregon State.  This is compounded by the fact that I am a commuter student, driving up from Eugene, and I usually only attend meetings if I am on campus, of if the technology is not being totally frustrating for me to call or internet in, in some fashion.  Needless to say, I let those who were regular members of the group shoulder most of the responsibilities for organizing meetings and retreats and writing for the blog and other such tasks.

However, this is a lovely group of people, and many of my favorite people that I have met in grad school, are part of this group, and I do care about them. So, when three active members, Laura Good, Katie Stofer, and Harrison Baker all graduated in the spring of 2013 and went on to jobs elsewhere, I could tell that if some other people didn’t step in and take on some of the work, my dear friends would be doing even more than their share! So, I tentatively agreed to write for the blog. At first, I was non-committal- “sure, I can be a guest blogger on occasion”,  but as the topic kept coming up in meetings, I decided that once a month really was not that much to ask, so agreed to take on a regular stint.

And, to my surprise, this has been fun! This type of writing comes much more naturally to me than the academic style that is usually asked of me (sorry to anyone who helps edit my “real” papers!) and I even like thinking about what I will write my next post about, as I go about my month.  I think I am funny, in a witty sort of way, and I appreciate the soap box from which to ponder and rant.

And, the best part is, that the universe is once again reminding me that when you do the “right thing” (i.e. helping out my friends) good things happen! Because of this blogging gig, I have been able to talk myself in to being a guest blogger for a pretty big technology in education conference later this month (ISTE), and a blog they asked me to write about Make as a lead up to the conference was posted through another on-line education website!  On top of that, the fun FCL performance group Eepy Bird, posted a link to my post on their Facebook page. And, it keeps coming-  this weekend I got an email from a couple of guys who are creating a more affordable CNC machine ( a Maker tool…) and someone sent them  my piece and they want to talk too… who knows where it will all end!

So, moral of the story- do the right/nice thing when you can. Try something new. Keep trying- when I recently reread my earlier posts, I was not impressed, but I feel that with time and practice, I am finding my voice. Here’s to finding yours!

I want to write about Science Pub again this month, but this time I am going to focus on my own experience as a learner.  I don’t attend these events every month, but as a person interested in science literacy, I feel like I should go more often.  I happened to be free again for the April one, so decided to go. The topic was also one of personal interest to me- “Finding Our Way Through the Controversy over Genetic Engineering in Agriculture: The good, the bad, and the righteous.”  Before we start, I will own up to my own biases, I am, in general, opposed to most things like GMO’s. Now, some of this is a knee jerk, liberal, environmentalist bias- I will be honest.  However, I was not really sure what the talk would cover, besides the title, and I thought I would be open minded and listen to what the speaker had to say. I have not done extensive research on this topic, and my information all comes from popular press type media- magazines, newspapers, attending local events about food issues, and such, so I thought, as a person who identifies as educated and rational, I should hear more from someone who actually does research in this field.  One more disclaimer though- the talk was being given in Eugene, Oregon, at a local, independent venue that hosts lots of music, dance, and benefit types of events, as well as the monthly Science Pub, so I did assume that it would at least be a balanced discussion.  However, as we were finding seats, my partner did say that he was surprised I wanted to come as I would probably just hear a lot of things that made me mad. Hmm….

The evening started out with a pretty broad overview of the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s).  The speaker structured it in three parts as things he felt the field had gotten right, “bad calls”, and then delved in to the more emotional aspects.  And, I did learn things.  My experience with GMO’s is on the controversial end, inserting genes that make plants able to withstand more pesticides and such, but I didn’t realize the variety of ways this technique is used.  For example, I had not heard about it being used to suppress a single gene that was already in a plant to make it more “suitable” for purpose. The example for this was how a gene in Ash trees can be suppressed to decrease the amount of lignin in the plant, so it can be used more efficiently as a biofuel source.  I could see some value in this- I know corn as a biofuel source is not sustainable, and we need other options if this more renewable energy source is going to be developed.  And then he told stories about some of the ways plants can be augmented genetically that don’t throw up as many red flags for me.  He talked about research on the East Coast to insert a gene from wheat into Chestnut trees to hopefully protect them from extinction due to the devastation caused by the blight they suffer from. The speaker stopped at this point and asked the audience how many people would support that kind of use of GMO’s and only one person raised their hand to vote “no” (I didn’t raise my hand for either, because I felt like I needed to think about it more- but I was leaning “yes” myself).  Then he talked about crops like “golden rice” where the scientists are inserting genes in staple crops often grown in developing countries that make them a richer source of beta carotene, which would have serious, positive effects on curbing blindness due to high rates of Vitamin A in these areas.

At this point, the speaker had me questioning my own black and white views on the topic, which is probably what most educators, particularly when talking about controversial issues (hey Laia!!!), hope for in their audience.

If only he had stopped there. Unfortunately, his next topic was about how is was unreasonable to expect labeling of foods around GMO, and it started to feel like he was defending the GMO industry.  He talked about how it would be an unfair burden on the companies to keep food sources separated to prevent cross-contamination, be too much work for the infrastructure of food transportation and such, and raise food prices too much for those who are already living more subsistence level. This last one felt almost like a slam on the audience, as most of us present could truthfully absorb higher food costs, if it came to that, but that our “demands” would be a hardship for others. And then he ended by showing a pair of videos. The first was of a protest in the Philippines, where a group of local people tore down the fence around a plot of “golden rice” and pulled it all up to stop the experiment. The second was of a spokesman from some rice research institute reacting to that event. And the speaker was telling us that the only reason the local people were participating in the protest was because of outside environmental groups “like GreenPeace” telling them that it was dangerous.  It may be my own biases, but it felt like propaganda!  Furthermore, it came across as possibly insulting to the local Filipinos, who may have come to their own conclusions about the matter- lots of indigenous groups around the world take on large corporations from their own beliefs and understandings of issues, and their own desire to preserve their way of life and their local environment.

Sadly, I left feeling more righteous in my beliefs than when I arrived. I did come, with what was my best attempt at an open mind. And, the speaker did have me for a while- I was willing to question some of my assumptions. I was willing to sit with some of the “grey” between the black and white I normally see.   A question from the audience might best sum up the night. A professor at the community college here asked about how, as science educators, they could educate people about these types of issues, where people tend to base their opinions and actions more on their feelings than information. And the speaker flat out said that you just can’t.  It was like he has given up even trying to have a rational dialogue with people who held different beliefs than his own.  However, I think he almost had it. If he had stopped his talk after the part about the science and research, more people would have left that night, more open minded on this topic. Remember, only one person said “no” about the Chestnuts- and this is Eugene! Yet, when he got to what felt like his own personal, political agenda, most of us went back to our corners, entrenched in our righteousness.

Yet, I am trying to hold on to what I was thinking from the first part of his talk- maybe there are some aspects of GMO’s that I am open to learning more about, and debating- and (gasp) maybe even allowing “in my backyard”.  And, from his mistake, I think I have a better understanding of how we can, as science educators, keep dialogue going. It is not hopeless!

PS- and if you remember my blog post from last month- I will say that a lot more women participated in the Q & A this time, although it seemed like most had points to make based on their own beliefs than questions about the science. More data needed to understand this! I guess I will have to go again next month…

This past Saturday, approximately 2,000 visitors joined in a celebration of marine science at Hatfield Marine Science Center.  There were opportunities to get behind-the-scenes tours, participate in activities in the wet labs, and interact with scientists, staff, and students from the OSU campus of Corvallis, HMSC Campus, Oregon Sea Grant, and Oregon Coast Aquarium.  Some of the state and federal agencies in attendance were  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Research, NOAA Marine Operations, United States Fish and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.  These groups shared their research and the tools they use to collect data.  It was a great opportunity for the public to hear and see some of work that takes place in the lab and along the coast.

I made a point of observing the facilitators/researchers and listening for their personal methods of communicating science.  For those presenting their work, they had to rapidly tailor their message to a diverse audience.  Interacting with young children, their parents, and grandparents, how did they capture the interest of this multi-generational group?  As each person brings with them a range of science knowledge, vocabulary, and attitudes towards science, how did the dialogue evolve between learner and facilitator?  I also watched the dynamics between group members as they stopped at stations.  If adults were with their children, what was the adult doing while the child interacted with the facilitator (whether it was a scientist, student researcher, etc.)?  Did they get impatient if their child did not answer a question right away?  Did they try to coax an answer out of them?  Did the adults get so enthusiastic they dominated the interaction?  Several questions came out of watching family groups make their way through the activities.

One station that was memorable for me was a simulation of a watershed and impacts to water quality.  Staff members from the Environmental Protection Agency of Newport used a model using several familiar items.  Two cake pans with sand were placed side-by-side.  The sand was built up to represent a shoreline and small plants were placed in the thickest section of sand.  The difference between the two was the presence of a wetland, indicated by pieces of sponge, near the shoreline.  Using food coloring, pollution was added to the model, followed by a “rainstorm”, or a spray bottle filled with water.  As the pollution moved over the surface, you could see where the wetland “sponge” soaked up the polluted water and prevented it from entering the water along shore.  The staff showed how this was similar to surface runoff and the challenges of pollutants entering waters along the Oregon Coast.  The facilitators summarized this simulation with an explanation of why wetlands are important and connected it to the simulation the visitors just witnessed.  As I moved on to other exhibits, I wondered if the concept of a wetland and its purpose had changed for these particular individuals.

Having this many visitors on site on one day, I took some time to watch behavior around the touchtable.  I looked for patterns to help refine my research questions of how people use an interactive tabletop in an informal science setting.  This setup is different from “informational kiosks” used in many museums, having a size and orientation similar to a desktop computer screen.  As the touchtable is a flat computer, the table setup itself may be attractive or inviting.  I watched as a group of five people leaned in and had at least five hands on the table simultaneously.  There were instances of users reading text out loud to others and modeling behavior of how to do a particular task on the screen.  I also noticed whether users would put one hand or two on the table and if they started with one finger or more, and did this vary by age?  I watched to see how soon someone was able to figure out what the point or goal of the software was and whether they refer to the instructions.  A few users took some time to speak about their experience using the table.  It was a helpful exercise and a reminder that there is still quite a bit to do before the summer season begins.

Marine Science Day was a great event due to the incredible work by many staff and volunteers that are connected to the HMSC community.  Looking forward to next year!



I had the opportunity to visit a private, Christian K-12 school in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico on the Baja Peninsula where a close friend of mine currently teaches science. As a science educator/biologist, I was really interested in understanding both the school system in this part of Mexico and also the students’ thoughts and experiences regarding conservation and development, as the region is rich in biodiversity and has experienced a great deal of controversy and political tension with regards to whether or not to develop large portions of its pristine coastline.

Mexico beach jpegBeach on the Sea of Cortez in Los Barriles, Baja California Sur.

Upon arriving in Mexico, I learned that the teachers at the school I visited are recruited from both the US and Mexico, and they teach their lessons primarily in English so that the kids can gain English speaking/writing skills. All of the students are Mexican citizens and most have grown up in Baja. The school is private, but is run by a charitable organization and offers many scholarships to students in the area with low socio-economic status. The socio-economic status of the children ranges widely from some kids having parents who work in the high-end resorts or the land bureau offices to those who live in poverty with their families in the desert arroyos (seasonally filled washes or dry desert stream beds). Their teacher told me that she often participates in feeding and clothing her own students.  She is a scientist with no previous formal teaching experience, and upon her arrival to the school last year she was given 5-7 full periods of classes per day. Her classes range all the way from elementary to high school and she teaches both science and English. She spoke to me about the difficulties of being a new teacher and having many students not only at different grade levels, but also with a broad range of English speaking abilities. Some kids are close to fluent, while others need students to translate for them during class, which creates some classroom management issues as there are always students talking to one another in side conversations in Spanish. Prior to her coming to the school, none of the kids had science classes, even at the high school level, because of the inability of the school to recruit teachers knowledgeable enough about the content. When she leaves soon to return to the US, there will again be no science classes for any of the 200 students in the school.

While visiting the school, I was able to teach four periods of science classes during which I did a Communicating Ocean Science to Informal Audiences (COSIA) activity with the kids to help teach them that although most of our planet is covered by water, only a small proportion supports a large concentration of life because of nutrient availability in the ocean. The slides were in Spanish, but I conducted the lesson in English, stopping every so often to allow kids to translate for one another and to check for comprehension. This was necessary as neither I nor the teacher were sufficiently fluent in Spanish to be able to help translate ourselves. Some students were more vocal than others which seemed to correlate with their comfort with the English language, but in general they were engaged in the activities and discussions and offered many intelligent suggestions.

I was able to tie the activity we did regarding ocean productivity directly to their home in Baja as the peninsula supports a great amount of biodiversity due to its’ nutrient rich waters, and it still has a lot of pristine coastline despite much development by corporations and large resorts. I incorporated a discussion into the activity by showing a public broadcast video about a failed development plan in Baja that would replace one of the last untouched wetlands in North America with a resort and a golf course. The video also talked about the loss of many potential jobs because of the development failure. I asked the students to reflect on what they had just learned, and we had a class discussion on whether or not Baja’s coastline should be conserved or developed. We also discussed sustainable development and talked a little bit about how development could impact some of Baja’s natural resources and coastal ecosystems and how it could be good in terms of economic growth. The resulting discussion surprised me in that there was an almost unanimous, hands-down response that Baja should be conserved. Their teacher had previously told me that many of them aspire to work at the resorts in the area, so I was somewhat taken aback by their strong anti-development opinions in regards to conserving the natural beauty of their home. One student simply wrote on her paper “Save Baja” and held it up. Another student said that God created the beauty of Baja and that they should protect God’s creatures. Several of the students brought up that there should be a balance between conservation and development that will keep Baja wild, but also bring much needed jobs to the area. In regards to tourism’s effects on the environment many of the students said that “ignorant” Mexican locals hurt the environment with trash and pollution much more than the tourists in the area. They had a strong desire to have clean and beautiful beaches where they could see whales and dolphins, and in our more informal discussions, many of them described spending much of their free time at the beach going to bonfires, surfing, swimming, etc. It occurred to me that their conservationist viewpoints may have stemmed somewhat from their valuing of the pristine coastline where they choose to spend their free time socializing. During my friend’s time at the school she had also brought in local environmentalist guest speakers to talk about sustainability and had taken her class whale watching, which may have also affected on their views towards development. Many of the students had a lot of interest in science and in the politics of their country, although most did not feel empowered to change the governmental actions and policies regarding development and broader issues they did not agree with because of corruption at many levels.

Mexico pic jpeg

A few of the high school students that participated in the ocean science outreach activity.

Although there are surely challenges unique to this school in Mexico, the school and its’ students were not so different from many schools in the United States. It struck me that this under-funded school with kids from disparate socio-economic classes and wide-ranging English speaking abilities is much like many schools in the US with similar demographics. Teaching students with so many differences in language abilities gave me a new appreciation for our teachers with high numbers of ESL students in their classes, as I felt that repetition was necessary for simple comprehension for some while the constant stopping and repeating was not challenging enough for some of the more fluent students. It was also upsetting to think that some of them might not understand the content simply because of the language barrier and my inability to translate it for them.

The kids at this school were interested in science and how it affected their social and economic well-being, and had clearly benefitted from having a science teacher come to spend a year with them. I am left feeling very thankful for the experience to meet a wonderful group of kids, but also very sad at the idea that starting next week science will not be taught in their school. It is uncertain whether or not they will be able to recruit another science teacher in the future.

Happy New Year!  With regards to Susan’s post on the final day of 2013, I appreciated the chance to reflect on my experiences and accomplishments of the past 12 months.  I have already learned so much from my peers, my courses, and through work in the Cyberlab.  I am looking forward to 2014 as it will be full of hard work and additional opportunities to build personal and professional skills while I conduct research in the field of free choice learning.

One area I am excited to continue studying are strategies and methods of communicating scientific information to the public.  At the Visitors Center we are always striving to improve our exhibit design, and our personal methods of interpretation while interacting with visitors.  We critique what we say and how we say it whether it is on exhibit signage or in conversation.  Effective communication, particularly the translation of technical information to a diverse audience, is a skill that takes practice.  The challenge is communicating the information in a way that is inclusive and avoids confusing jargon.  Other members of our lab have discussed the value and elements of science communication through the blog and I am seeing more of these conversations occurring within the scientific community online.

As scientists and researchers, we are attempting to answer questions and understand natural phenomena.  Why would we want to keep that information to ourselves?  Are scientists motivated to share their work beyond formal conferences and peer-reviewed journals?  With regards to the previous question, there is evidence that indeed scientists want to share their work with a wider network.  For example, more and more researchers are writing blogs and using social media channels to showcase their findings.  I recently joined Twitter and following #scicomm has been a valuable resource for me as I learn about this topic.  The discussion covers many areas — whether scientists should be trained in graduate school on effective communication strategies, to which channels are most effective (Twitter vs. Facebook), to making connections and advancing research.  I am interested to follow how the the relationship between social media and science progresses.  As future generations enter the field of research, how will the value or use of peer-reviewed journals and social media platforms evolve?

In future posts I will discuss social media and science, and other examples of how scientific content is shared in unique ways online.  Of particularly interest to me are infographics, which represent complex data and information using graphic design techniques.

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!