Category Archives: graduate school

Are Touch Tanks Touching Lives?

Imagine, you just spent the day at the aquarium. Perhaps you were on a date, enjoying the day with your friends, on a solo exploration, or taking your children on a special trip. Throughout your experience you encountered many live animal exhibits and even got up close with some creatures in touch tanks: sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea stars, and stingrays. Now take a moment and reflect. What will you remember about today? What conversations or thoughts did you have?

Close up view of the Touch Tank and Visitor Interaction at Hatfield Marine Science Center – Visitor Center Photo Credit: Pat Kight

Working on an interdisciplinary project through the Oregon State University (OSU)  Environmental Sciences program with College of Education advisor Dr. Lynn Dierking, PhD candidate Susan Rowe seeks to illuminate the impacts of free-choice learning – or the learning that occurs in informal settings, such as museums, zoos and aquariums. A conservation mission has driven these institutions to shift in recent years from a menagerie of captive animals on display to these animals acting as ambassadors for their ecosystems. But is this message clear? Through her studies, Susan is examining visitors’ conservation narratives at live animal exhibits in order to better understand what counts as conservation talk for families, what research methods better help us understand that, and how education experiences can better advance the conservation mission of these institutions.

Susan Rowe with the Octopus at Hatfield Science Center Visitor Center

After filming and observing 10 families’ interactions with the Touch Tank at the Hatfield Marine Science Center Visitor Center in Newport, OR, Susan invited the families to construct concept maps – a visual thinking routine to represent their thoughts and ideas –and conducted interviews to understand the families’ perceptions of the experience.  Susan also conducted a focus group with professionals involved in the field of conservation at different levels, and they too built conservation concept maps. With insights about the meaning of conservation for families and professionals, Susan constructed a rubric as a research tool to identify where, when and how conservation dialogue happens at live animal exhibit.  She is using the rubric to evaluate further interactions from additional 50 families who visited the exhibit and were recorded through the Visitor Center CyberLab  project, a system of surveillance cameras established to collect visitor data through advanced technology that uses facial recognition, eye tracking and other research tools to understand visitor use of exhibits, their movement and conversations.

Susan Rowe holding a stuffed “brain cell” at the March for Science In Newport, Oregon, Earth Day 2017

So what are these families talking about? Spoiler alert: it’s not conservation, at least not directly. And when families are asked to discuss conservation and what it means to them, the central theme seems to be their values. Different from common methods of studying the impact of free-choice learning, which focus on knowledge gained, Susan is identifying that a more holistic approach may be necessary for researchers to understand what challenge or provoke conservation talk at live animal exhibits. Susan hopes that her research will help determine better ways to engage audiences to think explicitly about conservation, i.e. values-based approaches to research and practice as opposed to values-changing. Susan suggests that if we can better understand how conservation talk is shaped in these experiences, we can advance our research methodologies and education curriculum design in ways that give families what they are looking for and, perhaps advance the argument that animal exhibits are indeed valuable conservation education platforms.

Susan Rowe and her family doing what they love… enjoying a beautiful day at the beach!

Growing up in Recife, Brazil, with the Atlantic Ocean as her playground, Susan spent her childhood dipping her feet into tide pools and exploring the wonders of the ocean – a curiosity and passion that has never faded. As an undergraduate at the Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco, Susan completed a dual-degree in Biology and Education with a license to teach. An undergraduate exchange program at Iowa State University (ISU) brought Susan to the United States for the first time. After spending some time as a middle school science teacher in Brazil, Susan returned to ISU to pursue a Master’s degree in Animal Ecology. Upon her move to Oregon, Susan worked as a marine educator at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, a volunteer at Oregon Coast Aquarium, teaching instructor for the Afternoon Adventures program at Muddy Creek Charter School, a field researcher for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and has occupied a variety of job positions at OSU as well, including working at Hatfield Science Center as a research assistant and exhibit designer.

Susan Rowe and Benny Beaver

After spending years working as a frontline educator, Susan realized her desire to do more work behind the scenes as a museum, zoo, or aquarium education director in order to keep her feet in both research and teaching opportunities, which led her back to graduate school. At OSU, Susan has had the freedom to design her interdisciplinary PhD program of study, which melds sociology, philosophy, and anthropology with environmental education and ethics, providing a rich foundation for her research. Through her PhD program, Susan has realized her desire to continue to do free-choice learning research and ultimately seeks an academic position where she can continue finding the best ways to make an impact on the environment through free-choice learning venues.

Join us on Sunday, January 28 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to dive deeper into Susan’s free-choice learning research and journey to graduate school.

You can also download Susan’s iTunes Podcast Episode!