About Susan Roberta O Brien

I am a marine educator from Brazil, an Environmental Education Ph.D. candidate who is passionate about the fascinating world of ocean sciences, informal education, and capacity building for science communication. I am also a mom, just as passionate about experiencing nature through the curious and adventurous eyes of my two daughters. I am a diver and the ocean is where I feel most at home.

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!

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.

This is more or less the title of a workshop proposal I submitted for the “Public in Science” conference happening in London next July. The goal of the workshop is to align contemporary research agendas in public science communication, including ways in which Cyberlab can serve as forum for visitors as conscious active participants in the task of improving science communication efforts.

Over the past couple of years, we have written many blog posts about Cyberlab, what it is, what it does, and how we have been progressing in the task of creating a research infrastructure, which is centered on the use of emergent digital technologies to aid in the capture and study of visitor interactions within the exhibits, and to provide a platform of adaptable content to fit visitor’s needs through cyberlearning.   It has been a huge challenge and we will continue to work hard to improve our tools and resources.

However, I think it is time for us to start strategizing a component of the project that is also very important, the idea of visitors as co-constructors and taking important roles in the feedback loop to inform the research and science communication effort. We want them to see themselves as contributors in the attempt to bridge their concepts and ideas about science with the actual scientific effort taking place within the lab and the resulting ways we see effective science communication. It means not only providing a remote social laboratory for those interested in this kind of research but also an inviting place for the public to take active roles within their own scientific learning. In that sense, the goal is for visitors to start moving along with us as we learn and move through paradigmatic shifts on what counts as science, how science is developed and how it is communicated across publics and through contemporary learning arenas.

But what would such a challenging attempt actually look like? How can such a cultural shift from the ways people see and use research be facilitated? How can we define these new cultural tools we want visitors to incorporate in their experience when they come to the visitor center? And most importantly, how do we define those cultural tools to ourselves and to the broader informal learning research community as important tools?

I guess this workshop, if it happens, can serve as a source of data in support of answering these questions by offering a start into solid conversations with professionals in the field towards establishing grounds for this shift in thinking about the development and promotion of science communication efforts in museum like settings. Bring the publics truly in… after all the communication is designed for them.

I am taking a break from writing about Cyberlab today, since I have been in a work retreat this past weekend and trying to move forward with my research project. I am getting ready to dive into data collection, and one of my methods includes a focus group composed of professionals in various fields and organizations that have some relationship to the conservation mission. The goal is for us to develop a rubric for what counts as conservation talk when you are watching family discourse at live animal exhibits.

With that in mind, I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about conservation, what it means, how it is talked about, where it happens, what mission it carries, and what does it really mean to different public audiences in Free-Choice Learning settings. While doing so, I stumbled across Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” show about the value of Nature. Guest speakers were Michael Nelson (Professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University) and Cathy Macdonald (Oregon Director of conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy). They carried on a short but interesting conversation that added a whole new dimension to my thinking as I design a conservation message intervention for one of the activities my recruited families will go through.

The main discussion revolved around the intrinsic versus utilitarian value of nature, how such values align with the conservation message and which would be best used to deliver a resource conservation message to various audiences. Nelson is a co-author on a recent paper emphasizing the point that, when given the opportunity to express intrinsic value, people tend to really do it. The problem lies in cross-disciplinary confusion about what intrinsic value means; therefore, the professional conservation community is missing out when they do not incorporate an intrinsic value component to their framework of thinking.

I see both intrinsic and utilitarian values as equally useful tools in spreading the conservation message, but how do we accomplish that? Say in live animal exhibits such as the touch-tanks I will be doing my research on. Light bulb went on! I think I can have a most focused way to create a background for my rubric as I watch the families’ discourse and can classify what kinds of values they are expressing, intrinsic or utilitarian, and use that as baseline data for our focus group discussions. If adding intrinsic value to an animal is an indicator of some conservation awareness or a firm component of conservation mission, then we can’t disregard that kind of discourse during family interactions.

That brings me back to my dilemma now as to what kind of intervention to design so as to purposely expose participating families to a conservation message. Do I focus on the utilitarian aspects or intrinsic aspects or both? How can we combine it all within this rubric-creating exercise? Moreover, how can it all relate to the literature suggestion that experiencing live animals in exhibits generates a level of conservation awareness in visitors? I am sure the nature of qualitative work will help guide the phases of research based on the collected data itself. I am super excited to start putting all these thoughts into solid research activities to generate solid and novel tools to be used within the same research and to generate original results about what family conservation talk looks like in free-choice learning settings. That would add an exciting new dimension to what we already know about biological talk at touch-tanks by previous research from Shawn Rowe and Jim Kisiel, and add conservation talk to the body of knowledge out there. At least, I hope so.

What about you? Do you think that the conservation field can benefit from incorporating intrinsic value in their activities a little more and making it a solid component for their mission?

Mark Farley, Rebecca Harver and I made a trip to the “Aquarium Village” in Newport (and the Visitor Center’s storage unit) in the hopes of finding anything remotely inspiring in our task of camouflaging the microphones in installation at the touch tanks. We thought maybe driftwood or something like that would be easy enough to drill into and still fit within the naturalistic design of the tanks. Upon opening the door and stumbling upon dusty unidentifiable objects, our hope was not so high but soon enough I discovered what seemed to be the best solution for our dilemma.

Thank you rock boring clams for providing us the perfect “habitat” for our microphones to live! Your capability of penetrating wood, coral and rocks leaving behind these perfectly sized holes just made our life much easier and those interesting rocks a great addition to our exhibit. We did have to do a little rasping but all in all our microphones fit perfectly. Below are some photos illustrating this interesting merge between nature and technology to facilitate our video data collection and analysis.

Rock boring clams made perfect holes for our microphones.
Rock boring clams made perfect holes for our microphones.
Rock boring clams made the perfect holes for our microphones.
Rock boring clams made the perfect holes for our microphones.


Then we were off to drill holes at the touch tank for placement of the microphone ensemble, connecting wires and power sources. Jenny East was very proud of her newly acquired skills. We will collect some data with a couple of these installed microphones now and make sure all is functioning well before we continue the set up. I am super excited to start my data collection through this high quality video and audio system, as well as happy to see the vision long developed for the system to actually materialize. I am sure we will test around bouncing and interfering sounds since the touch tanks are so dynamic, but hey we are getting there. Stay tuned for more updates on Cyberlab’s interesting adaptations.



Susan O'Brien setting up wires.
Susan O’Brien setting up wires.
Jenny East setting up wires.
Jenny East setting up wires.
Wire madness.
Wire madness.