Happy new year everyone!

After all the fun and frivolities of the holiday season, I am left with not only the feeling that I probably shouldn’t have munched all those cookies and candies, but also the grave realization that crunch time for my dissertation has commenced. I’d like to have it completed by Spring and, just like Katie, I’ve hit the analysis phase of my research and am desperately trying not to fall into the pit of never-ending data. All those current and former graduate students out there, I’m sure you can relate to this – all those wonderful hours, weeks and months I have to look forward to of frantically trying to make sense of the vast pool of data I have spent the last year planning for and collecting.


But fear not! ’tis qualitative data sir! And seeing as I have really enjoyed working with my participants and collecting data so far, I am going to attempt to enjoy discovering the outcomes of all my hard work. To me, the beauty of working with qualitative data is developing the pictures of the answers to the questions that initiated the research in the first place. It’s a jigsaw puzzle with only knowing a rough idea of what the image might look like at the end – you slowly keep adding the pieces until that image comes clear. I’m looking forward to seeing that image.

So what do I have to analyze? Well, namely ~20 interviews with docents, ~75 docent observations, ~100 visitor surveys and 2 focus groups (which will hopefully take place in the next couple of weeks).  I will be using the  research analysis tool, Nvivo, which will aid me in cross-analyzing the different forms of data using a thematic coding approach – analyzing for reoccuring themes within each data set. What I’m particularly psyched about is getting into the video analysis of the participant observations, whereby I’m finally going to get the chance to unpack some of that docent practice I’ve been harping on about for the last two years. Here, I’ll be taking a little multimodal discourse analysis and a little activity theory to break down docent-visitor interaction and interpretative strategies observed.

Right now, the enthusiasm is high! Let’s see how long I can keep it up 🙂 It’s Kilimanjaro, but there’s no turning back now.


One of the great things about being in graduate school is the variety of experiences that are available in the competition for funding. Each one offers unique opportunities for growth and learning, but some are certainly more challenging than others. I’m currently working on a project that utilizes my skills in web design, but the requirements of the project are beyond what I was formerly able to perform. The past few weeks have been full of learning and expanding and lots of trial and error. I finally found a few useful printed books (especially the Drupal Bible) and with their help I’ve been more successful in building the website with the functionality I envisioned. There is still quite a ways to go, and it would be easier if I had direct access to the servers, but I’m still proud of the work I’ve been able to do and look forward to adding “web development” to my Curriculum Vitae.

(Since the website is still under quite a bit of construction, I have chosen not to release the URL at this point.)

A new partnership with the Philomath (pronounced fill-OH-muth for you out-of-town readers) High Robotics Engineering Division (PHRED) helped the HMSC Free-Choice learning lab overcome a major information design hurdle. An on-going challenge for our observation system is recording usage of small, non-electronic moveable exhibit components – think bones, shells, levers, and spinning wheels.

PHRED mentors Tom Health and Tom Thompson will work with students to develop tiny, wireless microprocessor sensors that can be attached to any physical moving exhibit component and report its use to our database. The team will be using the popular Arduino development tool that has been the technological heart of the Maker movement.

This is a great partnership – the PHRED team has all the skills, enthusiasm, and creativity to tackle the project and build successful tools – not to mention gaining the notoriety that comes from working on an NSF-funded project. Oregon Sea Grant gains more experience integrating after school science clubs into funded research projects, while meeting the ever-challenging objective of engaging underserved communities.
Thanks to Mark for this update. 

Well the data collection for my research has been underway for nearly 2 months now, how time flies! For those of you new to this project, my research centers on documenting the practice of science center docents as they interact with visitors. Data collection includes video observations of voluntary docents at HMSC using “visitor-mounted” looxcie cameras, as well as pre- and post-observation interviews with those participating docents.

“Visitor-eye view using the looxcies”

My current focus is getting the video observations of  each of the 10 participating docents collected. In order to conduct a post observation interview (which asks docents to reflect on their practice), I need to get about 10-15 minutes of video data of each of the docents interacting with the public. This doesn’t sound like much, but when you can’t guarantee a recruited family will interact with a recruited docent,  and an actual interaction will likely only last from 30 seconds to a few minutes, it takes a fair few families wearing cameras to get what you need. However, I’m finding this process really enjoyable both in getting to know the docents and meeting visitors.

When I first started this project I was worried that visitors would be a little repelled about the idea of having their whole visit recorded. What I’m actually finding is that either a) they want to help the poor grad student complete her thesis, b) they think the cameras are fun and “want a go” or c) they totally want one of the HMSC tote bags being used as an incentive (what can I say, everyone loves free stuff right?!) The enthusiasm for the cameras has gone as far as one gentleman running up to a docent, jumping up and down and shouting “I’m wearing a camera, I’m wearing a camera!” Additionally, and for those star trek fans out there, a number of visitors and colleagues alike have remarked how much wearing a looxcie makes a person look like a borg (i.e. cyborg), particularly with that red light thing…

Now how, may you ask, does that not influence those lovely naturalistic interactions you’re supposed to be observing? Well, as many of us qualitative researchers know, that unless you hide the fact you are observing a person (an element our IRB process is not particularly fond of) you can never truly remove that influence, but you can assume that if particular practices are observed often enough, they are part of the landscape you are observing. The influence of the cameras may alter how naturalistic that interaction may be, but that interaction is still a reflection of social behaviors taking place. People do not completely change their personality and ways of life simply because a camera is around; more likely any behavior changes may simply be over- or under-exaggerated normative actions. And I am finding patterns, lots of patterns, in the discourse and action taking place between docents and visitors.

However, I am paying attention to how visitors and docents react to the cameras. When filtering the footage for interactions, I look out for any discourse that indicates camera influence is an issue. As examples, the docent in the “jumping man” footage reacts surprised to the man’s sudden shouting, open’s his eyes wide and nervously laughs – to which I noted on the video that the interaction from then on may irregular. In one clip I have a docent talking non-stop about waves seemingly without taking a breath for nearly 8 minutes – to which I noted seemed unnatural in comparison to their other shorter dialogue events. Another clip has a docent bursting out laughing at a visitor wearing one of the looxices attached to his baseball cap using a special clip I have (not something I expected!) – to which I noted would have likely made the ability for the visitor to forget about the looxcie less possible.

All in all, however, most visitors remark they actually forget they are wearing the camera as they visit goes on, simply because they are distracted by their actual visit. This makes me happy, as the purpose of incorporating the looxcies was to reduce the influence of being videod as a whole. Visitors forget to a point where, during pilots, one man actually walked into the bathroom wearing his looxcie, and recorded some footage I wasn’t exactly intending to observe… suffice to say, I instantly deleted that video and and updated my recruitment spiel to include a reminder not to take the cameras in to the bathroom. Social science never ceases to surprise me!

After talking to a developer, I’m switching to a turn-based format for Deme. I probably should have done this to begin with, and my reasons for not doing so earlier owe a lot to my own misconceptions about myself.

I don’t think of myself as a turn-based game fan. When I find out a computer game is turn-based, I tend to stop reading the description and look for something else. Somehow, this notion of myself as a real-time game guy persists despite my whelming affection for several turn-based games. These include computer games and tabletop games alike. Of course, many tabletop games are inherently turn-based.

The new concept I’m pursuing is fairly simple, drawing mechanical inspiration from games like Battle for Wesnoth and Heroscape. These games, likewise, are derived from other systems (turn-based tabletop strategy games, in general, have an interesting genealogy that includes H.G. Wells). One benefit of a turn-based system is ease of balancing and modification. Real-time games require finer simulation, which means more complexity. I want people to be able to modify Deme in the future, so this process should be as painless as possible. Initial development will also be much faster and simpler.

Another big bonus is the ease with which the game can be prototyped and balanced on pen and paper. I have hauled out my 20-sided die for this purpose, just in case. Fortunately, HMSC is a pretty good place to find nerds, ecologists, biologists, computer geeks and gamers. I only learned recently that my minor advisor is an Age of Empires fan. At some point I may have to pit him against my wife, whose historic conquests in that game’s campaign mode have filled many a night with the din of clashing steel.

Meanwhile, I have rejoined the husbandry team. I’ve switched gears a couple of times to focus on one area of my career or another, so it’s interesting to walk between worlds. I find I miss the FCL Lab when I’m working on aquarium systems, but I miss the animals when I work on interpretation and design. I think—or rather, I hope—this is a good thing. I want to do everything. I find it very motivating, but it could become paralyzing without the proper focus.

Sorry I missed posting on Friday; I’ve been frantically trying to get ready for my two upcoming conferences, as well as collecting some data last-minute (yay) with some subjects that let’s just say treated scheduling a bit flexibly. My schedule of deadlines in this last week has been:

Aug 14 Geological Society of America abstract deadline – they have a session on eyetracking in the geoscience education section. Digital posters, which means we can show real eyetracking data. Good folks for me to meet in particular.

Aug 15 NARST 2013 proposal – I ended up skipping this; it will just be too much too close to when I’m trying to defend, plus I didn’t have a great proposal to go along with this year’s theme of inequality. Puerto Rico would have been awesome, though. I did get a proposal in in July for AERA instead, which is much closer to home in San Francisco, though even closer to my defense time!

Aug 15 final paper due for the International Science Communication Conference (JHC) – involved getting some friends to translate my abstract and keywords into French, of which I speak about 6 words, none of them “eyetracking.” Presentation was due in July.

Work on a presentation with Shawn and Laura for 6-ICOM; we have an hour and a half between us, but don’t know the audience very well, so we’re hoping our idea of about 45 minutes of presentation and 45 minutes of interactive discussion goes over with them. We’re apparently about the only research group looking at multimodal discourse in learning in museums, and science learning in particular, so we’re not sure how familiar the others will be with why we’re studying what we are, for one thing. However, we should be able to have a good discussion about methods and analysis. We’ll be using Prezi which will allow us to make a record of the discussion and then share it after the conference. Plus we edited it together, which went well except for a couple minor mishaps.

Collect two interviews, one with a subject that contacted me Thursday after having been away and I managed to squeeze the interview in on Friday, and the other with a subject that missed the first appointment.

Aug 20 (tomorrow) leave for Europe for three weeks for two conferences – 6-ICOM and JHC (plus a week of vacation in between in which I try to swing by a museum research group in Germany that’s using mobile eyetracking).

So it’s been a little crazy. I’ve been lining up more of our lab folks to post more regularly as well, so you’ll be hearing more about the variety of projects we’ve got going on.

However, stay tuned to our twitter feed @freechoicelab, as I/we will be doing my best to live tweet from both conferences. Live being 8 or 9 hours ahead of the U.S. West Coast, so maybe you won’t be awake when we are, but still.