I am so excited to write this blog today and talk about a groundbreaking event Cyberlab is hosting this week. Believe it or not, it all started with my fascination for a reality TV show called project runway, where fashion designers are thrown into a fast paced design competition through a series of timed challenges. I asked myself the question “can we do something similar and fun involving research challenges that can jump start the use of Cyberlab tools as an open source and create a community of users?” Well it turns out I asked that question out loud and the Cyberlab team’s answer was a big fat YES!

We brought six informal learning researchers/evaluators from various institutions here in the US and in Brazil as participants. They will work in teams in a set of four timed data collection challenges designed to be fun and fast paced and to break into our Cyberlab system for creative and innovative use. We also invited a panel of judges to help them through the challenges and evaluate their performance. We are hoping to promote lots of collaboration among the participants, to generate future projects including Cyberlab tools and to start a community of users that can really change the ways we do informal learning research.

This will be either an epic fail or a wonderful success. Either way we are committed to have fun this week, to share the capacity we have built for Cyberlab use and to learn a ton with these brave researchers who accepted to go on this adventure with us. We are making it work! Doing it fast! And having fun along the way.

Check our website for more detailed information: http://oregonseagrantcybelaboratory.evolero.com/ignite-research-challenge/

If you are around and curious, come check out the participants’ final presentation on Friday, Aug 28th at the Hatfield Marine Science Center Auditorium. We will be starting at 9:30 am and wrapping a week of challenges and fun discoveries. Help us ignite Cyberlab research and change the way we do informal learning research!

So, since I never really talked much about what I was actually doing in grad school, while I was there, I decided to write this month’s blog post about my research. There is probably some irony here, but I can’t really explain it- just be excited that this post might actually show that I have done some real, academic work during the last five years.

What I want to talk about today, is one of the data collection tools I used, and why. During the time when I was still figuring out what I was going to do, beyond my grand scheme of “exploring a Maker experience with early adolescents”, I was lucky enough to get to spend hours in the car with my colleague and cohort member, Deb Bailey (now Dr. Deb Bailey!). Deb’s research interest has some parallels to mine- she explored how participation in gardening programs affected older adolescents, and we both work on the SYNERGIES project, so had time to talk about our ideas as we commuted up to the Portland area for conducting interviews and such. Deb was going to use Personal Meaning Maps with her youth, and the more we talked about it, the more I felt that they would be the perfect tool for my work too.

If you are unfamiliar with this tool, it was developed by John Falk and some of his colleagues and used in a number of studies based in museums. At first glance, it looks like a mind map or concept map. You have a piece of paper (although I guess this could all be done in iPads if you are tech savvy) with a prompt in the middle and have the participants write down words or phrases that refer to what they know, think, or believe about that topic. The next part is what was interesting to me- you interview the participant about what they have written, using their language. This appealed to me as a way to minimize my biases in the interviews.

You administer this activity twice, ideally as a pre-/post- experience, doing the interview twice too. In their second pass, they can add, remove, or change whatever they want about the initial artifact. And this was another important factor for me. The Personal Meaning Map would pretty accurately track the changes that each individual went through as a result of the experience they were participating in, rather than track them against some predetermined end point. As a former Montessorian, where the mantra is “follow the child”, this ability to see where each youth started and ended in such an individualized way fit perfectly with my beliefs about respecting each learner and where they might happen to be on their learning journey.

Then, this tool, which can look deceptively simple, can be analyzed along a number of dimensions- extent, breadth, depth, emotional intensity, and mastery. For someone vested in a mixed-methods study, this ability to have some measurable, quantitative data was a boon! Further, I supplemented these dimensions by examining changes in use of personal pronouns by the youth, and this tool was a perfect artifact to gather that data also.

You never know when inspiration will hit. As Deb and I passed the time during our car rides, really just filling the time, of course talk about our research ideas would come up- as it was consuming a lot of our lives. But, if I had not been “stuck” in the car for hours, talking to my intelligent and industrious friend, I might not have learned as much about this interesting tool, and my research would have been the weaker without it….. Serendipity comes in all sorts of interesting moments!

Well- I seem to have done it! I successfully defended my dissertation last week and passed unanimously! I don’t know if that is unusual or not, but it still feels good. Of course there were some minor revisions suggested by a few committee members, but that seems to be par for the course, in our department at least. It has been a long haul, and while I have enjoyed it overall and have met some truly lovely people, I am ready to find out what the next chapter of my life holds.

However, I wanted to take some time to give advice to others on this path. Hence, my Dissertation Survival Guide. Before I start, I will admit that I never bothered to read any of these types of lists while I was in the process myself. However, it has come up in conversation a few times, so I thought It would be worth sharing my thoughts, now that I have survived this journey, relatively sound of mind and body.

1.) Put on real clothes every day. This may or may not be important to you, but to feel like a “real” grown-up during this process, I had to look the part, to some extent. I am not advocating that you dress like you are going to a professional office every day, but I do recommend not spending more time in your pajamas than is healthy for you.

2.) Keep a routine. This was vital for me. After being a parent and teacher for most of my adult life, I was used to being responsible to and for other people. I started grad school when my children were finishing up high school, so my role was already shifting, and as a GRA, my work was flexible and somewhat sporadic, so it could have been easy to fall into a slacker lifestyle. (as a former Austinite, I can use that word with pride!) So, I still got up every day and worked out, did my house chores, and spent time “working” pretty much every day, Monday-Friday. I am a list maker, and I would make lists before I went to bed to come up with tasks to accomplish the next day, be they for my paid work, my own research, or other grad school related activities. I was afraid if I started going to movies or such during the day that this less structured lifestyle would suck me into some kind of unproductive vortex and I would linger in grad school for more years than was reasonable.

3.) Set goals. This is related to my lists. I would stay on top of reading in the field, applying to present at conferences I cared about, and I took more classes than necessary- but I did like that part of grad school. I enjoy learning!

4.) At some point, you just have to sit your booty down and write. This one took me awhile to figure out. I knew I would have to start making progress on my dissertation if I was going to finish this Spring, even though I had not gotten my IRB approval yet. But it was hard to move forward. My motivation came in the form of a fellow grad student, Elese Washines’ Facebook post. In early January, she posted her resolution to start writing an hour a day. While this is not a novel idea by any stretch of the imagination, it was all I needed to get started. So, in solidarity, I messaged Elese and asked her if she wanted to be my “accountability buddy” and that I would start writing too, and we would text each other our progress.

5.) Build your stamina. When I actually started writing the dissertation itself, I started out writing for an hour a day, four days a week. Then I based it on a daily word count. Over time, I built up the amount of time I would spend writing, and by the end, could write for hours at a time. This was useful when it came to the last push to finish on time and I would spend the whole day at my computer! My marathon analogy from previous posts has proven to be useful in so many ways!

6.) While I didn’t know it would be so useful, having an accountability buddy was important. Just texting Elese a few times a week kept me more honest about sticking to a writing routine. Being a commuter student meant I didn’t have access to meet my friends for writing sessions, so this virtual way of connecting was just enough to motivate me. Find someone, preferably who understands what you are going through and commit to each other!
7.) Lastly, I do not know if it was a coincidence or not, but I started a regular yoga practice the same week I started this PhD program five years ago. Not having a full time job, and now having a much more flexible schedule, meant I could structure my day around when there were yoga classes I could attend. It may not be the answer for everyone, but I felt calmer than the occasion often called for, and I do credit yoga for helping me stay more mellow and in the moment through all of my grad school process.

I don’t know if any of this will be helpful to you, but it worked for me. If you are in this process, I wish you the best of luck. Stick with it, because being on the other side FEELS AMAZING!

If you were paying attention, you might have noticed that I missed my blog posting last month. I was in the throes of trying to finish up my dissertation, to meet my first deadline that would have let me defend on May 1. I was actually writing up to ten hours a day at the end, and just couldn’t carve out the time to write anything else. As you may have guessed from my title though, I am still in the trenches with this experience, and have not defended yet. A few days before I was to submit the paper to my committee, my advisor let me know that it was not ready yet, and needed more work.

Unsurprisingly, this was was kind of a blow. It was not totally unexpected, she had let me know that she was not sure I could meet the deadline, but ever the optimist, I had kept the dream alive until the last minute. My analogy of writing a dissertation being like training for a marathon never felt more apt. Even the way I was writing for such long stretches of time at the end, felt like the lengthening of training sessions as the date of the race approached. When I knew I was not going to be done by April 20, I just was not sure if I could keep on going. I felt like the finish line had been moved, and I had more miles ahead of me than I had expected.

So, I cried for a day and then got back on the treadmill the next day for another day of training, or writing on my laptop at least. When it came down to it, I had come so far, and while the end had moved, it was still on the horizon, and I was going to slog on through and finish this.

On a happier note, my new due date approaches. The dissertation is due to my committee on May 19, and I am in good shape to meet that deadline. I have let all of my friends and colleagues know my new defense date (Tuesday, June 2 at 10a.m. at the Valley Library in Corvallis, if you are around!) and I am starting to think about what will go into my public talk part of the defense.

My graduation regalia is hanging in my closet already. I have ordered my graduation announcements (although I have not sent them out yet). And hopefully next time I post on here, I will officially be Dr. Wyld… Keep your fingers crossed!

As you may already know, my dissertation is about family interactions with live animals in informal learning settings and the links between their discourse and experience into the development of conservation dialogue. There is literature in the field of informal science education, environmental education and interpretation that pertains to this topic, and some research has been done to look at the link between these animal interactions and increased conservation awareness through empathy, however results may still fall into questionable categories.

For the first part of my literature review, I have focused on studies that relate to emotions and live animal interactions in respect to: 1) Relationships between exposure, resulting affect and educational outcomes; 2) Common emotions people feel when they have the chance to interact with live animals in general, the “cozy” vs. “scary” animals, and familiar vs. wild animals; and 3) The role of the affective component on learning.

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To make a long story short, animals make us feel! Whether they are “fuzzy” and “cuddly” like kittens and bunnies, or “disgusting” and “scary” like spiders and snakes, different animals raise different feelings in us, which are tied to what we know and experience (cognition), as well as with the opportunities we have to interact with particular animals. Generally it is discussed that aesthetics is a powerful determinant of affect, how beautiful an animal or a landscape is perceived to be influences human emotions and how sensible we are to ecological factors and issues. In addition, this non-human charisma we develop for animals is also a product of different parameters that are highly contextual and culturally oriented, including considerations of spiritual significance, symbolic meaning and material value.

As you can see at this point, charisma and empathy building (which may lead to more ecological and conservation awareness) is far too complex to measure. With that in mind, I am looking at my research in a way that is not about measuring increased conservation awareness in families, instead it is about the potential for that reflected in their discourse. To give more solid substance to those observations and discussions of empathy and conservation, the second part of my literature review discusses studies outside the free-choice learning field (in general) and measures of learning. I am looking at papers in the field of psychology research that can be relevant to the argument of emotional and/or biological predispositions towards animals, which I hope will build on the argument of value development, specifically conservation value.

In sum, whether there is debate about the nature of conservation value building arguments and the validity of the claims from research, we do know that animals make us feel, and that feeling is associated with cognitive appraisal and bodily responses from the interaction. Therefore I believe there is a lot of room to investigate this conservation argument further by not only looking at these learner response/ evaluative studies but also laying down the psychological basis of empathy building.

If you feel like learning more on this topic send me a note and I can send you some references. Just in case you don’t have enough to read already to read 🙂


Yesterday, Jenny East and I went to a lecture entitled “Pseudoscience: Exploiting Public Trust”, sponsored by the Phronesis Lab for Engaged Ethics at OSU. The lecturer was Massimo Pigliucce, a professor of philosophy at the CUNY-City College, co-host of the Rationally Speaking Podcast, and the editor in chief for the online magazine Scientia Salon. Some of you may remember his name from when I mentioned in lab (a few times) about one of his books I was reading, Answers to Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a more Meaningful Life and how that got me to reflect on what years of science philosophy and the discoveries of scientific endeavors themselves can collaborate and culminate in new paradigms reflecting new research questions, new theories and new hypotheses.

The point of his lecture was to discuss, on historical and philosophical grounds, the conflicting ideas about what counts as real science and as pseudoscience (e.g. Astronomy as a science and Astrology as a pseudoscience), ideas of which culminated in the conceptualization of a “demarcation problem” – the problem of where and how we should draw the line differentiating the two. Sir Karl Popper, who we have learned about in our time here at Graduate School, offered a solution to this demarcation problem by introducing the idea of “falsification,” which suggests that science does not progress by confirming hypothesis but by falsifying them. In this sense he was trying to exploit the power of deductive logic to solve the problems of “induction.” However, as suggested by the Duhen-Quine thesis, it is impossible to test a hypothesis in isolation because each hypothesis is surrounded by background assumptions. Furthermore, Laudan introduced some metaphilosophical considerations to the hinge on the demarcation problem. Laudan discussed what conditions determine adequacy, the necessary and sufficient criteria and what judgments are implied.

Beyond the philosophical thought development made so far, the demarcation problem is still under scrutiny. Massimo talked about the scaled approach where some sciences are widely accepted as science already since there is enough empirical evidence, some are placed in transitory stages as quasi scientific fields in development and some are just simply termed pseudoscience for the lack of collected empirical data. Thinking broadly about disciplines that may or may not fit in the scientific category made me take on a more focused line of thinking within the science endeavor itself and the questions of methods and scientific process. Say qualitative vs. quantitative approaches. I would say there is a demarcation problem there too, which is fueled by conceptualizations of the steps involved in the scientific process and traditional understanding of what it means to do science. Qualitative approaches are answering different questions than quantitative, placing them at the center of paradigmatic shifts about the nature of science.

It is my personal belief that qualitative and quantitative methods are complementary for the advancement of science and our understanding of the world, almost an analogy to what Massimo discusses in his book about the complimentary nature of the scientific and philosophical fields to lead us to more meaningful observations about the world. The basis for how we separate science from pseudoscience is analogous to the basis of the latter discussions of methods accepted as scientific methods and worthy of trust. Both “demarcation problems” are cultural constructions materializing as concepts get defined, new ideas are born and naturally derived debate comes to surface as we try to make sense of things and establish rules. Like in any other dimension of social life and different social institutions (family, school, etc), we create rules and follow those rules until they are revised and changed, often by revolutionary paradigmatic shift, it is our way to avoid chaos and continue to just “be” in the world.

In its very beginning, wasn’t science a branch out of philosophical thinking anyway? But, throughout the years, it became so acculturated in its own development, rules and essence that it was separated from the philosophy field to gather the empirical ways in which we can be almost “certain” about things in the world, and it does indeed provide us with that data, like finding a needle in the pile of hay with a magnifying glass. While philosophy sets up the center stages of debate about the broader questions, the stages for agreements and disagreements the very process of “thinking” unravels in the collective mind of society, like looking at the entire barn that stores all that hay.

The questions of philosophy fascinate me just as much as the questions of science. For me the demarcation problem is a sign of healthy development in the individual minds and the “collective mind,” which ultimately establishes what we know about the world, the ways we seek that knowledge and, more importantly, the way we change those ways of knowing and seeking knowledge. For me, things get unhealthy when that social collective mind close up to these possible changes and new incorporations of thinking for reasons short of educated assumptions, curiosity and plain respect for the very capacity of science and philosophy as interrelated fields.

Oh boy…I just realized I have too much of an inclination to philosophical thinking, which may make it hard for me to be seen as a solid scientist. But I also love science and what it is all about, which does not leave much room (in practical terms) for a philosopher to stand in the current state of world affairs.