Another task within my Master’s research is checked off.  I have reviewed and noted the conversations and behaviors from video footage of 25 family groups using our Ideum multi-touch table exhibit.  As I went through the footage, it was fascinating to see the similarities and differences in how groups used the exhibit, talked (or not) while using the table, and the elements of the exhibit that appeared most attractive to them.  I will be analyzing the engagement and learning strategies data along with the group interview responses that I collected post-use of the exhibit.  I am so thankful for the infrastructure that we have installed as part of the Cyber Lab.  The video recordings that include audio of the group conversation has been a great way to examine the data beyond field notes from the date of observation.  Quite a bit of data to make sense of!

This quarter I have had the opportunity to take the Socio-Cultural Dimensions of Learning course from Dr. Lynn Dierking at Oregon State University.  It has aligned perfectly with where I am at in my project.  Topics in the course have included how we learn through our interactions and observations of others, how culture influences learning, and how institutions scaling from families, to museums, up through society plays a role in the learning experience.  Family learning in museum spaces has been one topic that we have focused on, particularly how different members of a multi-generational group make meaning of exhibits and content that is personal and relevant to their experience.  An element that I have taken an interest in is the roles that the family members take, whether it is the adult or child, and who “takes charge” of the interaction with the exhibit.  For example, is it primarily the adult showing the child how to use it, or explaining what the information means?  In what ways do they make connections to what the child already knows?  These questions relate to my observations with the touch table.  I have seen evidence of the child taking charge of the interaction and showing the adult, and I’m curious to investigate what strategies the child uses to “show” the adult what to do.  I wonder if it is because this generation is often around touch surfaces with their personal electronics, that they feel comfortable taking on that role to “teach” the adult.

I have also appreciated the opportunity to interact with other students in the socio-cultural dimensions class that are located around the country, many who also work in free choice learning venues.  Several students have shared teaching and learning strategies that they use to interact and engage with their visitors.  The course has inspired me to think more about the transition from theory to practice, by applying what we are studying to improving the learner experience.  We can conduct this research, but until it is applied and shared, it seems anticlimactic (at least to me!).  I hope from my research of watching the natural behaviors of families using the multi-touch table, I can provide recommendations for ways to improve content to facilitate the behaviors they are already expressing.  The technology is a tool that is being used to share science content, so what meaning are the users making of that information?  Research has been done on the overall usability of large scale touch surfaces in public spaces, but how does that connect to learning in a space where individuals have choice and control over their experience with the technology?  It is not so much as HOW they use it, but what do they gain as a result of the interaction on a personal or social level?  The beauty of research – you look to answer some questions and come up with more!

I have been sitting in front of the computer today searching for creative ways to install potent microphones and camouflage them among the rocks of our live animal touch-tanks. Cyberlab cameras are up and running, and we have great views of the families’ interactions at many angles of our touch-tank exhibit. Once captured through our data collection tools, the families’ discourse can give researchers invaluable data about the visitor’s learning experience, meaning making and social interactions in the exhibit and among themselves. This is important data not only for evaluation purposes but also for learning research purposes as we strive to conceptualize learning in informal settings and contextualize its occurrence within new theoretical frameworks paying attention to contemporary mediating tools.

The problem we run into at the touch-tanks while trying to collect rich data is, of course, audio capture. Often, there are lots of people using the exhibits all at once, discussing among themselves and with the staff volunteers. There are lots of social exchanges between visiting groups, lots of excitement going on as people touch the animals on display, water background noise and all sorts of other noises incorporated in this rich experience. The camera mics are not good enough to clearly capture all the various dialogues efficiently; therefore, we are starting the process of installing new mics throughout the few access points of the touch tanks so that rich audio can accompany rich video data.

We will be working on installations in the next few weeks, and as soon as my IRB approval comes through (fingers crossed), I will hit the ground running with my own research, which will use the audio and video systems we have to collect the data for discourse analysis of family interactions at the tanks and the links to conservation dialogue. I will be recruiting families and working with them in a set of four activities at the touch tanks, collecting data through video observations, interviews and focus groups. I can’t wait to start but before that I need to dive into team and creative work to install these wonderful mics.

I will post a blog in the next few weeks with photos and updates on the process, and maybe your creative input may come right in handy :)

Welcoming sun, great food, and warm people came to greet us upon our arrival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For me, it is always so good to be home, and this time home at the “wonderful City” to learn about the advancements in science communication taking place in Brazil and Latin America in general. Make no assumptions, this was not a “have fun in the sun” trip, although I would have liked to have spent some time at a tropical beach where swimming is the main activity. Instead, as hard workers and, let’s be honest, good museum nerds, we got to visit Museums and work on strategic evaluation and research planning around some exhibits.

Our first activity involved a whole day visit to the “Museu Ciencia e Vida” (Museum of Science and life) to see and discuss an exhibit called “Forest of Senses”. Luisa Massarani, a former Cyberscholar and Director of Red-Pop UNESCO (Network for the popularization of science and technology in Latin America and the Carebean) is a part of the team in charge of evaluation and research on children’s experience in the exhibit. After a 4 hour meeting, we discussed and finalized the whole research plan and stages of analyses. It felt very rewarding to be recognized as researchers with valuable expertise and to contribute to cutting edge learning research in the Brazilian landscape. Forest of Senses is a great exhibit designed to work as a game activity  for younger kids (5-8 years of age) to explore the Brazilian forest habitats and, through using their senses, be provoked and able to explore the ideas around biodiversity, invasive species and wildlife traffic (which is a big problem in Brazil). When we walked through the exhibit to see the initial camera installation and testing through the system package we arranged for them to become a “node” of  Cyberlab, it was like reliving the past when Cyberlab started, amidst tons of duck tape and creative solutions for IT problems. As we move forward in this collaboration, it will be interesting to share the process, findings and cultural clashes in the use of cutting edge technology.

To finalize this part I in the summary of our trip, we spent our last 2 days in Rio participating at the RedPop Event organized by Luisa Massarani, with the goal to discuss the science communication scenario in Latin America, where Brazil holds 260 of the total 490 science museums established. It was a great event, I even got to be interviewed by a science journalist for the first time (way to practice my communicating skills). It seems to me Latin America has come long ways not only in the effort of establishing science museums but in the reflection on evaluation and research practices to attend the cultural use of these places. From this event, we came out with fresh ideas on methods for learning research, with many bridges to collaboration in interdisciplinary projects including touch-tank research in Brazilian aquariums, and with a amazing contact list with the names of great science communication researchers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It was also very professionally rewarding to receive recognition for the cutting edge work being developed at Cyberlab and seeing its potential to really materialize and spread. Stay tune for more!


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Luisa Massarani is our guest blogger today. She was one of our cyberscholars, visiting Hatfield and Cyberlab from June 29th through July 4th, to learn our tools and resources in order to collaborate with us from the Brazilian Institution she works for, the Museum of Life (Museu da Vida), FIOCRUZ Foundation. Luisa is also the director of RedPOP-Unesco, the Network for Popularizing Science and Technology for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Luisa Massrani and Shawn Rowe
Luisa Massrani and Shawn Rowe

Over the last decade, Brazil has been systematically investing in public engagement in science and technology (S&T), both in pratical activity and in research. As someone who works in the field, I don’t need to be persuaded how much it is important to invest in it. In fact, other countries around the globe have been much more aware of the importance of supporting public engagement in S&T.

However, less effort has been put into understading the meaning different publics make of the public engagement in S&T actitivies – a challenge faced not only in Brazil but also around the globe. In my view, understanding the audiences is, in fact, the main question mark we face in science communication.

This was the main motivation that made our research group at the Museum of Life – a hands on science center in Rio de Janeiro, linked to the research institution Oswaldo Cruz Foundation – focus our attention to audience studies. Latin America has good scientific production in audience studies – mainly in soap operas. Very little, however, has been produced in science communication.

Luisa, Shawn and Jenny
Luisa, Shawn and Jenny

In 2009, we succeed in having a grant for designing a study on audiences and science coverage in TV news as result of a collaboration among 10 countries in “Ibero America” (Latin America plus Portugal and Spain). Since then, we began applying the methodologies we used for that study in the context of a science exhibition. In particular, we were very excited to understand further science exhibitions and 5-8 years old kids – which is a wonderful age for engagement in science due to their natural curiosity about the world around them. Furthermore, there is a substantial gap of literature focusing on this issue.

We feel that further methodologies are necessary for understanding in fact the meaning the kids make of the exhibitions.Thus, since the very begining, the connection with Cyberlab has been very exciting, due to the opportunity for opening new intellectual doors for us. Visiting Cyberlab in person during the week of June 30th was not only very useful and important from the point of view of developing new and more robust methodologies but extremely inspiring for new research and collaboration ideas.

I go back home prepared to start phase 1 of collecting data of the exhibition entitled Forest of Senses, which aims to foster curiosity of kids toward the Brazilian biodiversity. We will implement the methodology we designed together with the Cyberlab team, including installing the equipment that will allow us to transmit to Newport in real time what we will be observing in Brazil. We hope to, very soon, have results to share with all of you!

“Rapid prototyping” or “additive manufacturing” are both terms associated with the process of 3D printing (using digital models to fabricate tree-dimensional objects, printed one layer at a time). This piece of technology proved to be the solution for one of the most difficult cyberlab’s challenges: finding perfect mounts and housing for cameras installed on the exhibit floor that can be practical, durable, flexible and aesthetically pleasing.

We struggled with somewhat problematic alternatives for quite sometime, being saved by 3D technology as an effective and cheaper alternative than contracting with big exhibit development companies to create prototypes and models to customize mounts and housings for cameras to be placed throughout the visitor center. After a few attempts to find 3D printing contractors in Oregon that could do the job at a reasonable price and fast pace (believe me! that was quite an interesting task), we found Donald Heer at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at OSU. Donald has been superb in working with us to make “our dreams” come true in time for a very busy summer, packed with ongoing research projects and scheduled cyberscholars who will be collecting data through the camera system.

Below are photos of the camera mount and housing prototype for the octopus tank. While the final product will be painted and look polished, the photos show how the 3D model works. It is really quite amazing to be able to have a customized product that fills all needs for the assigned exhibit.

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Cyberlab was created under the premises of effective technology use to improve research on learning. It could not be any different that most of the solutions for our challenges are found within cutting edge technologies as well, and that we learn along the way. Sometimes it feels surreal we can do all of this, and that within the course of a very short time we can transform ideas into real products that work.

In her last blog post, Jen Wyld encouraged us to find our voices. If I have learned something working at Cyberlab is to find my voice, trust and try new ideas. Knowing the great job you all do within the Free-Choice Learning Program, I encourage you to trust your ideas even if they seem surreal, give them a voice and roll with them, because they are most likely doomed to succeed, especially when you find the right team players.

If you are interested in learning more about 3D printing or even try to print some projects of your own, enter the library 3D printer website and have fun testing your ideas!

Spring Quarter is now upon us and with that there is plenty of “spring cleaning” to get done in the Cyberlab prior to the surge of visitors to Newport over the summer months.  For a free-choice learning geek like me, this period of data collection will be exciting as I work on my research for my graduate program.

The monitoring and maintenance of the audio and video recording devices continues!  Working with this technology is a great opportunity to troubleshoot and consider effective placement around exhibits.  I am getting more practice with camera installation and ensuring that data is being recorded and archived on our servers.  We are also thinking about how we can rapidly deploy cameras for guest researchers based on their project needs.  If other museums, aquariums, or science centers consider a similar method to collect audio and video data, I know we can offer insight as we continue to try things and re-adjust.  At this point I don’t take these collection methods for granted!  Reading through published visitor research projects, there was consideration for how to minimize the effect of an observer or a large camera recording nearby and how this influenced behavior.  Now cameras are smaller and can be mounted in ways that they blend in with the surroundings.  This helps us see more natural behaviors as people explore the exhibits.  This is important to me because I will be using the audio and video equipment to look for patterns of behavior around the multi-touch interactive tabletop exhibit.

Based on comments from our volunteers, the touchtable has received a lot of attention from visitors.  At this time we have a couple different programs installed on the table.  One program from Open Exhibits has content about the electromagnetic spectrum where users can drag an image of an object through the different sections of the spectrum, including infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and x-ray, while providing information about each category.  Another program is called Valcamonica, which has puzzles and content about prehistoric petroglyphs found in Northern Italy.  I am curious as to the conversations people are having around the table and whether they are verbalizing the content they see or how to use the technology.  If there are different ages within the group, is someone taking the role as the “expert” on how to use it?  Are they modeling and showing others how to navigate through the software?  Are visitors also spending time at other exhibits near the table?  There are live animal exhibits within 15 feet of the table and are they getting attention?  I am thinking about all of these questions as I design my research project that will be conducted this summer.  Which means…time to get back to work!