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”!

Members of the Cyberlab were busy this week.  We set up the multi touch table and touch wall in the Visitors Center and hosted Kate Haley Goldman as a guest researcher.  In preparation for her visit, there were modifications to camera and table placement, tinkering with microphones, and testing the data collection pieces by looking at the video playback.  It was a great opportunity to evaluate our lab setup for other incoming researchers and their data collection needs, and to try things live with the technology of Ideum!

Kate traveled from Washington D.C. to collect data on the interactive content by Open Exhibits displayed on our table.  As the Principal of Audience Viewpoints, Kate conducts research on audiences and learning in museums and informal learning centers.  She is investigating the use of multi touch technology in these settings, and we are thankful for her insight as we implement this exhibit format at Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Watching the video playback of visitor interactions with Kate was fascinating.  We discussed flow patterns around the room based on table placement.  We looked at the amount of stay time at the table depending on program content.  As the day progressed, more questions came up.  How long were visitors staying at the other exhibits, which have live animals, versus the table placed nearby?  While they were moving about the room, would visitors return to the table multiple times?  What were the demographics of the users?  Were they bringing their social group with them?  What were the users talking about?  Was it the technology itself or the content on the table?  Was the technology intuitive to use?

I felt the thrill of the research process this weekend.  It was a wonderful opportunity to “observe the observer” and witness Kate in action.  I enjoyed seeing visitor use of the table and thinking about the interactions between humans and technology.  How effective is it to present science concepts in this format and are users learning something?  I will reflect on this experience as I design my research project around science learning and the use of multi touch technology in an informal learning environment such as Hatfield Marine Science Center.

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!