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.

“Hands-On Science Museums and Their Visitors” is the topic of a two-day conference coming up September in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Cyberlab will represent Hatfield Science Center/Oregon State University and will join other Science communication professionals from  Argentina, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, United States, Mexico and the United Kingdom to engage in dialogue about visitor meaning making, basically the kind of conversation we are very enthusiastic about engaging in and promoting, especially in such a multicultural setting.

Luisa Massarani, who was a Cyberscholar this Summer and who is the Director of the RedPop, the Network for Science Communication for Latin America and the Caribbean, organized this event to discuss strategies Museums around the world employ not only to investigate learning but also how a diverse public construct meaning from their visits. Although a bit intimidated I will admit, I am supper excited to participate in this event because it strikes me as a place where paradigmatic shifts in learning research are possible and in fact welcome, as a place where we can make room to discuss strategies to capture and analyze meaning making, to look at visitors from their perspectives, to go beyond the traditional measures of learning outcomes in research, to really give our visitors a voice we can dialogue with in the academic written world.

We talk about this need for a new culture of learning in our Free-Choice Lab meetings, Luisa talked about that in her seminar presentation as a Cyberscholar and the need to understand “provocation” and build provocative exhibits. Shawn and I talked about this in an article just published in the NAI Magazine “Legacy”, which led us to an invitation to expand this thinking through a series of articles for the InterpNews Magazine next year. As these kinds of dialogues spread and increase (as it seems to be happening in my opinion), this discussion becomes highly related to current dialogues on learning research methods and applications in the world of practice. I have been recently involved with the new “Methods” Research Interest Group of NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching) and the current development of a broad scope dialogue on learning research that seems to be heading in the direction of valuing these paradigmatic discussions and the need to change.

Even though we are all trying to do this kind of more inclusive, learner-based research in our work, we need to see ourselves as important voices in the larger network of discussions, and commit to speak our mind in fruitful and inclusive ways.  Meetings like this really allow us to reflect on how we are trying to do that in the context not just of our own lab and cohort here, but in the larger international context as well. It also gives us a chance to make things real, to move from discussion to actual application invigorated by the good work of others and motivated by our own growth and learning as professionals in the field.

To learn more about RedPop visit the following pages:



Last week, Katie Stofer and Lisa Anthony from the University of Florida spent a week in residence at Hatfield Marine Science Center as part of the Cyberscholars program. Here is their account of their week:

We are interested in investigating how people learn science in informal settings such as the science center, in this case, specifically through interactions with visualizations of global ocean data. During the week in residence, we observed users interacting with exhibits on an Ideum multi-touch table, the same multi-touch screen mounted on the wall, and a traditional touch screen kiosk that controls a 3-foot spherical Magic Planet display. We also conducted semistructured interviews with visitors to understand how the exhibits were working for them or falling short and how the exhibits could be improved. Lisa got acquainted with the Cyberlab setup at HMSC, including the camera system and its synchronized audio stream, and Katie got re-acquainted — she actually worked on the installation of the system as a graduate student. Jenny had created a custom view of the eight cameras focusing on the exhibits of interest. In all, we collected roughly 50 visitor observations and around 20 interviews, and we also created workable prototype exhibits to continue collecting data once we leave to supplement and compare with the in-person data we collected.

Our collaboration combines the traditions of informal science learning with human-computer interaction to investigate the whole exhibit experience from the touch interaction to the resulting meaning-making. After returning home to Florida, we will continue remote observations of the exhibits to analyze more patterns of use by a broader cross-section of users. Ultimately we may design new programs for these exhibits to harness the power of touch interaction to invite users to deeply investigate the patterns in these visualizations, while presenting the visualizations in forms that we know best facilitate meaning-making by many users.

Lisa is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE) at UF, and works on human-computer interaction questions of natural input modalities (e.,g., touch, gesture, and speech) for kids and learning. She is interested in designing for exhibits at HMSC because interfaces in public settings need to be very robust and intelligent to be able to handle the diverse visitors who may be using them. Information seeking, navigation, and understanding can be either enabled or challenged depending on the efficacy of the interaction. Lisa earned her PhD from Carnegie Mellon in Human Computer Interaction in 2008.

Katie is now Research Assistant Professor of STEM Education and Outreach at the University of Florida in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication, after earning her PhD as part of the Free-Choice Learning Lab at Oregon State University in 2013. She wants to help publics gather, make sense of, and use the results of current research for decision-making at personal, societal, and global levels through public engagement with science. In particular, visualizations of data can harness the powerful human visual system if designed to make use of, rather than compete with, perceptual and cultural systems. Katie is also interested in agriculture as a context for engaging with many contemporary science and engineering issues.


Luisa Massarani is our guest blogger today. She was one of our cyberscholars, visiting Hatfield and Cyberlab from June 29th through July 4th, to learn our tools and resources in order to collaborate with us from the Brazilian Institution she works for, the Museum of Life (Museu da Vida), FIOCRUZ Foundation. Luisa is also the director of RedPOP-Unesco, the Network for Popularizing Science and Technology for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Luisa Massrani and Shawn Rowe
Luisa Massrani and Shawn Rowe

Over the last decade, Brazil has been systematically investing in public engagement in science and technology (S&T), both in pratical activity and in research. As someone who works in the field, I don’t need to be persuaded how much it is important to invest in it. In fact, other countries around the globe have been much more aware of the importance of supporting public engagement in S&T.

However, less effort has been put into understading the meaning different publics make of the public engagement in S&T actitivies – a challenge faced not only in Brazil but also around the globe. In my view, understanding the audiences is, in fact, the main question mark we face in science communication.

This was the main motivation that made our research group at the Museum of Life – a hands on science center in Rio de Janeiro, linked to the research institution Oswaldo Cruz Foundation – focus our attention to audience studies. Latin America has good scientific production in audience studies – mainly in soap operas. Very little, however, has been produced in science communication.

Luisa, Shawn and Jenny
Luisa, Shawn and Jenny

In 2009, we succeed in having a grant for designing a study on audiences and science coverage in TV news as result of a collaboration among 10 countries in “Ibero America” (Latin America plus Portugal and Spain). Since then, we began applying the methodologies we used for that study in the context of a science exhibition. In particular, we were very excited to understand further science exhibitions and 5-8 years old kids – which is a wonderful age for engagement in science due to their natural curiosity about the world around them. Furthermore, there is a substantial gap of literature focusing on this issue.

We feel that further methodologies are necessary for understanding in fact the meaning the kids make of the exhibitions.Thus, since the very begining, the connection with Cyberlab has been very exciting, due to the opportunity for opening new intellectual doors for us. Visiting Cyberlab in person during the week of June 30th was not only very useful and important from the point of view of developing new and more robust methodologies but extremely inspiring for new research and collaboration ideas.

I go back home prepared to start phase 1 of collecting data of the exhibition entitled Forest of Senses, which aims to foster curiosity of kids toward the Brazilian biodiversity. We will implement the methodology we designed together with the Cyberlab team, including installing the equipment that will allow us to transmit to Newport in real time what we will be observing in Brazil. We hope to, very soon, have results to share with all of you!

“Rapid prototyping” or “additive manufacturing” are both terms associated with the process of 3D printing (using digital models to fabricate tree-dimensional objects, printed one layer at a time). This piece of technology proved to be the solution for one of the most difficult cyberlab’s challenges: finding perfect mounts and housing for cameras installed on the exhibit floor that can be practical, durable, flexible and aesthetically pleasing.

We struggled with somewhat problematic alternatives for quite sometime, being saved by 3D technology as an effective and cheaper alternative than contracting with big exhibit development companies to create prototypes and models to customize mounts and housings for cameras to be placed throughout the visitor center. After a few attempts to find 3D printing contractors in Oregon that could do the job at a reasonable price and fast pace (believe me! that was quite an interesting task), we found Donald Heer at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at OSU. Donald has been superb in working with us to make “our dreams” come true in time for a very busy summer, packed with ongoing research projects and scheduled cyberscholars who will be collecting data through the camera system.

Below are photos of the camera mount and housing prototype for the octopus tank. While the final product will be painted and look polished, the photos show how the 3D model works. It is really quite amazing to be able to have a customized product that fills all needs for the assigned exhibit.

3D Mount OctoTank3    3D Mount OctoTank4

3D Mount OctoTank5 3D Mount OctoTank10

Cyberlab was created under the premises of effective technology use to improve research on learning. It could not be any different that most of the solutions for our challenges are found within cutting edge technologies as well, and that we learn along the way. Sometimes it feels surreal we can do all of this, and that within the course of a very short time we can transform ideas into real products that work.

In her last blog post, Jen Wyld encouraged us to find our voices. If I have learned something working at Cyberlab is to find my voice, trust and try new ideas. Knowing the great job you all do within the Free-Choice Learning Program, I encourage you to trust your ideas even if they seem surreal, give them a voice and roll with them, because they are most likely doomed to succeed, especially when you find the right team players.

If you are interested in learning more about 3D printing or even try to print some projects of your own, enter the library 3D printer website and have fun testing your ideas!  http://guides.library.oregonstate.edu/3dprinting

“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what is right” – Isaac Asimov

    Rachael Carlson’s Silent Spring drew attention to a sense of an environmental crisis in the 1960s.  During the same decade, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, warning the world about population growth and its potential threats to planetary life.  With the rising need for a basic change of values, a new field emerged as we can see in John Muir’s advocacy for “all things natural, wild and free”.  Furthermore, Aldo Leopold advocated for a much needed land ethics in his Sandy County Almanac. However, Leopold himself could not provide a systematic ethical theory or framework in support of his ethical concerns and ideas, but nonetheless he created an opportunistic challenge for moral theorists.

   Many environmental scientists and philosophers debate the need for a revolutionary environmental ethics to regulate the business of humankind with and within nature.  Conservation, sustainable development, deep ecology, social ecology, feminism, bioregionalism are all examples of fields where ethics is, to various degrees, a concerning component and a goal. However, thinking about ethics and morality drives all dimensions of the human enterprise, not only what is concerned with environmental issues, and they do not fall short of the old relativism, which in a way gives room to prospectively built moral discourses.

   The three major schools of thought on morality are, in a way, examples of such relativism: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. The later is fundamentally different from the first two in the sense that it is not worried about asking the question of “what is the right thing to do?” either because of the rules created (deontology) or because of perceived consequences (consequentialism); instead, it is concerned with the question of “how are we to live our lives?” At the end though, to think ethically is to think about what we do and why we do it, which has been fueled through many years of philosophical thoughts on morality and human nature. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci put it quite precisely that, ultimately, it is still up to us to decide what to make of it all.

    A few blogs ago it was brought up that if we really are to promote change, the business of informal education should no longer avoid issues such as religion and spirituality, issues that address the whole person within learners. Here too it is imperative to look at the philosophical thoughts on morality while making moral decisions or weaving a morality system of our own. A wholesome environmental or land ethics has not yet solidified because society has yet to find the congruent points into moral theories in the face of practicalities and effective ways to foster an environmental ethics based on these congruent points. But finding those points and building dialogues among them is one of the only ways to avoid the relativist fallacy that seems to create a continuous meaningless relationship between human and non-human nature.

   Just as Lisa Roberts in her book From Knowledge to Narrative challenged museums to think of themselves less as stewards of culture and knowledge and more as forums for dialogues among multiple, sometimes competing narratives about events, objects, identities and ideas, it is interesting to think of environmental education in informal contexts as potential forums for moral dialogues about the relationships among human and non-human nature.  This, of course, also requires some paradigm shift in informal education from fear to engage moral and ethical questions to finding ways to put them front and center.

In his 2012 book entitled “Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life”, scientist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci coin the term Sci-Phi to define a thinking practice with a crucial assumption that we must use both reason and evidence to guide and improve our lives. The book is about what philosophy and science together can inform us about the big questions of life, questions initially raised by Aristotle and other Ancient Greek philosophers.


Basically, Sci-Phi is short for “wisdom” and “practical advice” as he says. Science is not enough, and philosophy can and should be informed by the best science available, the same way that scientific knowledge should also be guided by our values. Going way back in time, the author quotes Kant who famously put that “experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play”. A practical example of that I talked about in a previous post is the question raised about the climate justice movement having the potential to blend environmentalist and social justice movements together, in a Sci-Phi way to address the scientific issue and the axiological issue we are faced with climate change.


The discourse Massimo is raising is by no means new. Kant himself started to articulate that thought is the give and take between sensibility and understanding. The world exists but so does the works of the mind. A version of academic neo-kantianism is concerned with blending new findings in science with the study of philosophy. Two aspects of such played an important role in our “old friend” Bakhtin’s early work as well: 1) The desire to relate traditional problems of philosophy to discoveries in the exact sciences. 2) The emphasis on unit and oneness as he tried to get to the world, the other side of Kant’s ideas, rather than the mind. His emphasis was in the “process”, the need to take others and otherness into account and emphasis on plurality and variety.


As I have been reading on Bakhtin’s work (Shawn correct me if I am wrong), there is this problematic notion of selfhood. We only exist in dialogue, because there is an otherness out there. Hence, there is a radical emphasis on Bakhtin’s work in regards to particularities and situatedeness. On this token, one can argue that Philosophy and Science were once united under the umbrella of “natural philosophy”, but because of changes in particularities and situations in its advancement, there is now a clear otherness between the two, perhaps an otherness that already existed in the “selfhood”of natural philosophy, but that needed to break apart in order for voices to be heard.


Going on another important tangent, the question of selfhood is a question of location.  In this sense, what voice is really talking when we talk? Utterance raises a question of authorship, so in a narrative there is always co-authorship among voices, being that everyday speech or complex literary work.  At first sight, one may say science fits within the complex text realm and philosophy fits within everyday life concerns, but I would think they truly co-exist and co-author all dimensions of life.


So I got to think, is our informal learning research the very exercise of give and take in the co-authorship? Do we try to make sense of this co-constructed dialogism among participants during an “every day “ experience that constitute a museum visit, being ourselves part of such co-construction of a narrative situated in time and space? Then, when we retell those stories through our thesis, that still consists of a co-constructed dialogism in the shape of a “complex literary work”. In publication, we are named as authors of our own thesis but we are just one of the voices speaking at the moment of writing, while other voices are not silenced only reframed within our situated words. In this sense, we are authors of nothing but the mere mechanical materialization of words in a page, words of a self AND an otherness in a situated time and space.


So, are our theses about science or are they about philosophy? Are we practicing Sci-Phi? I think we are, and I think it is about time that becomes explicit and accepted as a meaningful practice and, why not, a co-constructed way of knowing.