This past week I had a chance to attend NOAA’s Science on a Sphere workshop in St. Paul, Minnesota. The workshop was held at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) which is located along the shores of the Mississippi River. It was great to see a new science museum and learn about data visualizations presented via 3-D spherical displays. The network of institutions meets annually to discuss use of (now) 100 installations of the sphere around the world and learn from each other. The setup for this display includes up to four projectors placed around a six-foot sphere at 90-degree angles. Images wrap around the sphere based on the alignment of the projectors and represent data on various Earth system processes, such as atmospheric storms, sea surface temperature, seafloor mapping, as well as processes occurring on other planets in the solar system. An app on the iPad helps to “drive” the exhibit, so facilitators can select a playlist of what they want to run on the sphere. I had never seen this display before so it is amazing to see all that has been created for public viewing. There are some videos online of it in action!
The theme of the workshop was “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” or the informal term used to designate the period on our planet where human activity can have a global impact on system functions. Approximately 95 participants were in attendance discussing methods of presenting datasets to different audiences, maximizing use of available content, and showcasing custom content used at their respective sites. NOAA staff also described new features that could be incorporated to the exhibit. The three-day experience was full of working groups, plenary sessions, and inspiring keynote speakers. FCL lab alum Katie Stofer was in attendance and presented some of her research and recommendations on the use of color related to data visualizations on the sphere. Celeste (Science Education PhD student) and I represented the Cyberlab, sharing information about current work in the lab and the potential for Cyber Scholars to collaborate and access the tools we are installing in an effort to study informal science learning. We showed the video produced for Oregon Sea Grant that explained the technology we are using and how that will connect to visitor research. I fielded several questions throughout the rest of the workshop with regards to the projects we are working on. Many participants expressed fascination with the setup and proposed use for research and some of them may pursue the opportunity to be a Cyber Scholar.
In addition to discussions about the sphere, there was a focus on communicating climate change to various audiences and what to keep in mind with regards to cognitive reception and emotion. We discussed the power of cultural models, framing, and connecting with values instead of a “doomsday” message that can so quickly turn people off. One strategy I found interesting was that instead of using the concept promoting individual action, was instead to discuss collective community action starting with people directly connected to you. What can family, friends, and neighbors do to promote change and choices that can have a more measureable impact? There was also the discussion on use of common symbols and metaphors to explain the abstract concepts of climate change. Julie Sweetland of the FrameWorks Institute showed research on use of a metaphor that described climate as a system, similar to the human circulation system. The ocean acted like the heart within the system, pumping or transferring heat around the world. Just like a human cannot live without a healthy heart, the Earth cannot live without a healthy ocean as it has an influence on the rest of the system. Julie showed footage of focus groups that had participants explaining the metaphor to other group members…meaning-making in action!
We did have some time to explore the museum on our own, which I was very excited about. SMM has several incredible exhibits, some permanent, and others that are on display for a limited period of time. The temporary exhibition is Ultimate Dinosaurs, and there were many reconstructions of the beasts on display. There is an interactive Cell Lab, where visitors don lab coats and goggles and can look at their own cheek cells under the microscope and explore the properties of blood. There was also space to tinker with electronics, build and create objects that would fly in a wind tunnel, and a “Collectors’ Corner” where naturalists can earn points to trade for artifacts like agates and small fossils. It seemed as if the museum was always busy with families and school groups. An outdoor exhibit known as the Big Back Yard was a combination of watershed education and a mini-golf putting course. Obstacles included river deltas, mountain ranges, and other natural elements to symbolize the many aspects of the watershed. Signage and information surrounded the holes describing the value of rain gardens and how impervious surfaces affect water runoff. I felt like a kid again as I moved about the museum — it was a lot of fun.
As I was traveling back to Oregon, I reflected on the concepts I keep encountering in the world of informal learning research. So often the topic of communication, cultural tools such as language, interpretation, and meaning-making come up again and again. There are challenges in conveying complex data on a sphere and trying to understand how it might be interpreted by the viewer. What impact does it have on a personal level as well as a social level? So many research questions can extend out of this. As researchers we are also trying to make meaning and interpret the data we collect, then we communicate or share that with others. Ah, the meta level…
In mid-July I will be representing the Cyberlab again at the National Marine Educators annual meeting. Hooray for field trips!