I am taking a break from writing about Cyberlab today, since I have been in a work retreat this past weekend and trying to move forward with my research project. I am getting ready to dive into data collection, and one of my methods includes a focus group composed of professionals in various fields and organizations that have some relationship to the conservation mission. The goal is for us to develop a rubric for what counts as conservation talk when you are watching family discourse at live animal exhibits.

With that in mind, I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about conservation, what it means, how it is talked about, where it happens, what mission it carries, and what does it really mean to different public audiences in Free-Choice Learning settings. While doing so, I stumbled across Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” show about the value of Nature. Guest speakers were Michael Nelson (Professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University) and Cathy Macdonald (Oregon Director of conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy). They carried on a short but interesting conversation that added a whole new dimension to my thinking as I design a conservation message intervention for one of the activities my recruited families will go through.

The main discussion revolved around the intrinsic versus utilitarian value of nature, how such values align with the conservation message and which would be best used to deliver a resource conservation message to various audiences. Nelson is a co-author on a recent paper emphasizing the point that, when given the opportunity to express intrinsic value, people tend to really do it. The problem lies in cross-disciplinary confusion about what intrinsic value means; therefore, the professional conservation community is missing out when they do not incorporate an intrinsic value component to their framework of thinking.

I see both intrinsic and utilitarian values as equally useful tools in spreading the conservation message, but how do we accomplish that? Say in live animal exhibits such as the touch-tanks I will be doing my research on. Light bulb went on! I think I can have a most focused way to create a background for my rubric as I watch the families’ discourse and can classify what kinds of values they are expressing, intrinsic or utilitarian, and use that as baseline data for our focus group discussions. If adding intrinsic value to an animal is an indicator of some conservation awareness or a firm component of conservation mission, then we can’t disregard that kind of discourse during family interactions.

That brings me back to my dilemma now as to what kind of intervention to design so as to purposely expose participating families to a conservation message. Do I focus on the utilitarian aspects or intrinsic aspects or both? How can we combine it all within this rubric-creating exercise? Moreover, how can it all relate to the literature suggestion that experiencing live animals in exhibits generates a level of conservation awareness in visitors? I am sure the nature of qualitative work will help guide the phases of research based on the collected data itself. I am super excited to start putting all these thoughts into solid research activities to generate solid and novel tools to be used within the same research and to generate original results about what family conservation talk looks like in free-choice learning settings. That would add an exciting new dimension to what we already know about biological talk at touch-tanks by previous research from Shawn Rowe and Jim Kisiel, and add conservation talk to the body of knowledge out there. At least, I hope so.

What about you? Do you think that the conservation field can benefit from incorporating intrinsic value in their activities a little more and making it a solid component for their mission?

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 :)

After all the preparation for my research study, it was finally time to sit and observe visitor behavior around exhibits and collect some data.  This allowed me to personally see what natural behaviors in an informal science setting look like, while applying the skills and knowledge I have gained about conducting research and interviewing human participants.

Over the course of August I interviewed 25 family groups after they used the Ideum multi-touch table.  My goal was to collect data in the Visitor Center over morning and afternoon hours each day of the week to get a wide distribution of visitor attendance.  After each sampling session I was busy processing the data, inputting survey responses and typing up the comments from the open-ended piece of the interview, while downloading video footage of the interactions.  I enjoyed the result of our team’s effort of putting the camera system in place, as it was convenient to go back to the day of the visitor encounter and know that their conversations and interactions were captured unobtrusively on film.  The set-up of the Cyberlab provides an advantage to past methodologies where the researcher physically tracked the visitor or a large video camera was placed right over an exhibit.  Through our methods, I believe we are collecting very natural behaviors by the visitor which will help us understand learning in the public science setting more efficiently and effectively.

Family use of museums and science centers have been investigated over the past few decades, but as learning researcher Doris Ash noted in 2003 in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, there are few studies that investigate at depth the dialogic analysis of interactions with the family group.  This is important to understanding how meaning and sense-making between learners takes place in the informal science setting.  In looking at the research on large touch surface technology, I have not found much on family group use in public settings with science-related content.  The field of human-computer interaction has explored this technology with regard to usability features, particularly with gestures and software or program navigation.  I hope that my research provides insight combining both family learning and how this technology can support that.

While there are many different layers to the informal science experience (physical, personal, and sociocultural elements), I thought about the individual and collective learning in the family group, as well as how they were positioned in the physical sense around the touch table during the “live” observations.  As I look at footage, I will be exploring the interactions and roles that occur within the group while considering the conversations that are taking place.  I am also interested in the overall response to the touch table.  Part of my interview with the group was to hear how they would describe their attraction to the exhibit and how they described their interaction with this type of technology.  I will be doing some content analysis in an effort to see what the common themes are within their responses.

Considering the other technology we have, a familiar digital “interactive” is a single user kiosk or desktop computer with games and information.  The touch table allows for multiple users and inputs and is not commonly seen in other settings.  We have a desktop interactive located near the touch table, and I observed families (in groups of two, three, even up to five) crowding around the computer and “coaching” the user in control of the mouse.  As the desktop exhibit affords one kind of experience, the touch table allows for collective physical action at the same time.  Five people could use this exhibit at once.  Keeping this in mind, how can we (informal science centers with access to the technology) take advantage of this to facilitate learning for the individual and the group?

September and October will be busy months analyzing footage.  I am eager to see just what comes out of all of this data!

Summer is flying by and the hard work in the Cyberlab continues.  If you have been keeping up with previous posts, we have had researchers in residence as part of our Cyber Scholar program, movement on our facial recognition camera installations, and conference presentations taking place around the country and internationally.  Sometimes I forget just how amazing the implementation of unobtrusive audio and video collection methods are to the field of visitor research and exhibit evaluation until I talk to another researcher or educator working at another informal learning center.  The methods and tools we are applying have huge implications to streamlining these types of projects.  It is exciting to be a part of an innovative project in an effort to understand free choice learning and after a year in the lab, I have gained several new skills, particularly learning by doing.

As with any research, or project in general, there are highs and lows with trying to get things done and working.  Ideally, everything will work the first time (or when plugged in), there are no delays, and moving forward is the only direction.  Of course in reality there are tool constraints, pieces to reconsider and reconfigure, and several starts and stops in an effort to figure it out.  There is no Cyberlab “manual” – we are creating it as we go – and this has been a great lesson for me personally when it comes to my approach to both personal and professional experiences, particularly with future opportunities in research.

Speaking of research, this past week I started the data that will go towards my Master’s thesis.  As I am looking at family interactions and evidence of learning behaviors around the Ideum touchtable, I am getting the chance to use the tools of the Cyberlab, but also gain experience recruiting and interviewing visitors.  My data collection will last throughout the month of August, as I perform sampling during morning and afternoon hours on every day of the week.  This will allow for a broad spectrum of visitors, though I am purposively sampling “multi-generational” family groups, or at least one adult and one child using the exhibit.  After at least one minute of table use, I am interviewing the group about their experience using the touch table, and will be looking at the footage to further analyze what types of learning behaviors may be occurring.

During my observations, I have been reflecting on my time as an undergraduate conducting research in marine biology.  At that point, I was looking at distribution and feeding habitats of orange sea cucumbers in the Puget Sound.  Now the “wildlife” I am studying is the human species and as I sit and observe from a distance, I think about how wildlife biologists wait in the brush for the animal they are studying to approach, interact, and depart the area.  Over the course of my sampling sessions I am waiting for a family group to approach, interact, and depart the gallery.  There are so many questions that I have been thinking about with regards to family behavior in a public science center.  How do they move through the space, what exhibits attract particular age groups, how long do they decide to stay in any particular area, and what do they discuss while they are there?  I am excited to begin analyzing the data I will get.  No doubt it will likely lead to more questions…

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!

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”!