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.

Hello everyone,

In the light of this week’s lab discussions on defining the many “literacies” there are and search for perhaps a more appropriated term (such as the the term “fluency” suggested by Katie Stofer), I would like to stretch the debate to discuss Environmental Literacy (EL) in particular. So, since I wasn’t in lab this week, here is my two cents on the literary definitions of the term:

Generally, a “desired outcome” of environmental education (EE) is to create a public that is environmentally literate (whatever that means). Many EE programs and materials have this as a stated purpose. However, the definitions and measurement tools of environmental literacy (EL) has remained elusive. Some national surveys have been conducted that attempt to measure literacy of the general public. A few states have attempted to periodically survey their citizenry to gather EL data. While these are important attempts, I believe that many of the questions asked in the instruments used still lack in accurately measuring some “degree” of EL as defined in their proposals. Further, I believe that these important instruments fail to account for cultural and educational system differences and don’t always take into consideration accepted benchmarks for EE.

As the term “literacy” first appeared, it was solely associated with the idea of being able to read and write. Michaels & O’Connor (1990) attempted to provide a better understanding of the concept, proposing that “… we each have, and indeed fail to have, many different literacies. Each of these literacies is an integration of ways of thinking, talking, interacting, and valuing, in addition to reading and writing … [literacy] is rather about ways of being in the world and ways of making meaning…” 

Dinsinger & Roth (1992), in their Environmental Literacy Digest, gave credit to Charles E. Roth as the one who coined the term “environmental literacy” in 1968. They reviewed various definitions of EL, and suggested that it should be based on an ecological paradigm, which includes interrelationships between natural and social systems. A person who is environmentally literate relates his/her values with knowledge to generate action. Here is a brief list of EL definitions given by various authors and organizations since then (some referring to it as Ecological literacy), and that highlight the complexity of such discourse:

“[EL] is the capacity of an individual to act successfully in daily life on a broad understanding of how people and societies relate to each other and to natural systems, and how they might do so sustainably. This requires sufficient awareness, knowledge, skills and attitudes to incorporate appropriate environmental considerations into daily decisions about consumption, lifestyle, career, and civics, and to engage in individual and collective action.” ( Elder, 2003) 

 “Ecological Literacy presumes a breadth of experience with healthy natural systems… a broad understanding of how people and societies relate to each other and to natural systems and how they might do so sustainably… the knowledge necessary to comprehend interrelatedness… an attitude of care or stewardship… in a phrase, it is that quality of mind that seeks out connections… Ecological Literacy is driven by the sense of wonder, the sheer delight in being alive in a beautiful, mysterious, bountiful world… to become ecologically literate, one must certainly be able to read… to know what is countable and what is not… to think broadly, to know something of what is hitched to what… to see things in their wholeness… to know the vital signs of the planet… to know that our health, well-being, and ultimately our survival depend on working with, not against, natural forces…” (Orr, 1992) 

“EL is a set of understandings, skills, attitudes, and habits of mind that empowers individuals to relate to their environment in a positive fashion, and to take day-to-day and long term actions to maintain or restore sustainable relationships with other people and the biosphere … The essence of EL is the way we respond to the questions we learn to ask about our world and our relationship with it; the ways we seek and find answers to those questions; and the ways we use the answers we have found.” (Roth, 2002) 

 “Ecological Literacy is the ability to ask: And now what?” (Garret, 1999) 

“EL should aim to develop:  

  • Knowledge of ecological and social systems, drawing upon disciplines of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities; 
  • Go beyond biological and physical phenomena to consider social, economic, political, technological, cultural, historic, moral, and aesthetic aspects of environmental issues; 
  • Recognize that the understanding of feelings, values, attitudes, and perception at the center of environmental issues are essential to analyze and resolve these issues; 
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills for personal decisions and public action.” (Dinsinger & Monroe, 1994) 

“EL should aim for: 

  • Developing inquiry, investigative, and analytical skills; 
  • Acquiring knowledge of environmental processes and human systems; 
  • Developing skills for understanding and addressing environmental issues; 
  • Practicing personal and civic responsibility for environmental decisions.” (NAAEE, 1999; Archie, 2003) 


Even though all of the definitions above have some common attributes, based wholly or in part on the AKASA (awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills and action) components listed in the Tbilisi declaration, some different aspects and considerations are arrived at through different perspectives:

Orr and Elder’s definitions are very similar (Orr uses the term “ecological literacy” instead of “environmental literacy”). However, Orr clearly emphasizes the importance of intrinsic values and abstract feelings, as do Dinsinger and Monroe. Dinsinger and Monroe, as well as NPEEE, mention “interdisciplinary” in their definitions; The NPEEE standards and others do not include the latest thoughts and advances in EE, such as notions of sustainability, or even locally-based educational issues. Roth takes these notions into consideration when implying the necessity to understand changes. The NAAEE definition refers not only to personal action but also goes further to mention “civic” obligation.

The question about what Environmental Literacy is and what it should approach at its core are still far from being answered in a common agreement between scientists and practitioners in the field. Morrone et al (2001) reaffirm that the study of environmental literacy is relatively new, and no definition has been given to it that is universally accepted, and consequently the attributes of an environmentally literate citizen are still subject to discussion and investigation. However, what has been discussed so far in the literature, and in the thousands of meetings of the “real world of practicing Environmental Education”, are very important for the understanding of what environmental literacy should be aiming for, even if a widely accepted definition is never agreed upon.


Sorry for the long post if you are interested in the literature cited here visit the link and you can see my entire thesis.


If you are interested, my next post can be about the applied research in environmental literacy.

Hope I didn’t bore to death with this. To me is still a fascinating subject.










OK… I owe you all an update from my very productive Brazilian trip and conference presentations. All in all things went really well. All of my 4 presentations were  very well attended and people were not just amazed by the research potential of the Cyberlab but also excited about the possibilities of my research in Brazil. I spent just as much time answering questions as I spent actually presenting, which I think is a good indicator (and yes I answered lots of questions about “IRB” related stuff although not actually called RIB in Brazil).

I was extremely impressed with the level of research being done there. While doing literature reviews here I had a very hard time finding stuff online and having access to citations I knew existed. There is a serious problem of visibility for Brazilian publications not only outside the country’s realm but also within the national research groups doing this kind of research. Therefore, I had a very erroneous idea about the status of museum learning research in Brazilian settings. I really thought they were further behind than they really are. This first international workshop of research in museum education in Sao Paulo was not only crucial for me to be able to network and get involved with the group of museum learning researchers in Brazil but, more importantly,  it gave me a clear understanding of the historical development of museum studies in Brazil, their advancements, challenges and needs for future research (which will immensely influence decisions on my research questions).

Overall,  the status of current museum learning debate is very similar to what we experience here in the US. The same kinds of challenges were put into perspective during the event. There were robust discussions about the definition of learning, the learning theories influencing frameworks for research, where many people referred to the contextual model of learning and YES our  well debated “Vygotsky” came to surface in one of the sessions I participated – THANKS SHAWN for theory meetings! The role of the museum as a “non-formal” setting (as they called instead of informal) and the role of its educators was also largely debated. It was brought up the need for more partnerships between formal and “non-formal” institutions, form more research to identify Brazilian museum common and uncommon audiences and develop strategies to bring scarce audiences such as general family groups to the museum floor.

They also want to shy away from research that only incorporate cognitive aspects of learning to also include affective, aesthetic and other important aspects of cultural and social upbringing, which lead to conversations about the need for more studies on mediation processes and tools, reflecting on practice and inclusion research. I would say “inclusion” is the hot topic at the moment and I may even infer that they have done much more in terms of inclusion research and action than the US has. I was very impressed with the level of knowledge  and experience coming from all participating groups which composed a very diverse audience by the way. Participants included college professors and researchers, graduate students, museum administrators, staff and educators, school teachers, journalists involved with science communication, social inclusion related professionals and so on.

It was an incredibly rich and eye-opening experience for me, putting interdisciplinary initiatives into perspective and raising the issue to everyone participating that more conferences, workshops, and other events as such are in great need for the museum learning research community in Brazil, in order for them to develop better ways of communicating, exchanging efforts and making research results and methodologies available and visible to all community.

I was able to meet my co-advisor and network with many other international and national professionals and graduate students in the field, some who are excited to cooperate with my research and work as mediators when I am not physically there. I am now part of the “GEENF”  – the translation of the acronym stands for “Non-Formal Education and Science Divulgation Research Group”. It was created in 2002 and it is associated with the Science and Math Education Department at the University  of Sao Paulo (USP), partnering with many museums and research institutions, National and International. Here is a link for more information in you wish to adventure into portuguese – http://www.geenf.fe.usp.br/v2/.

It was just great for me to realize I can have a job back home when I graduate, specially when they need many more trained, knowledgable and experienced professionals in the field doing research, partnering with international institutions for cross-cultural research and replication of methodologies applied elsewhere and use of state-of- the-art technology.  Creating a partnership between Hatfield and my research site (as off now the Ubatuba Aquarium in Sao Paulo) is not too far in the horizon for me anymore and, if it gets out of paper successfully,  it has the potential to bring great benefits to both sides involved. I will be applying for some grants here soon, wish me luck!


Free-Choice Learning Lab Research and cutting-edge technology used will be disseminated Internationally! Brazil here we go to Rio!

Shawn and I have been confirmed to participate at the First International Workshop  on Museum Learning Research, which will take place in Brazil this coming December. We will be participating in round tables about visitor learning research, discussing methodologies and presenting our various research tracks, especially in regards to Hatfield Marine Science Center. We will have the opportunity to share the Cyber lab activities with museum researchers around the world and a bigger population of  Brazilian researchers. This will be a great opportunity to get ourselves known within international scope and to jumpstart my research in Brazil, as well as our partnership with my co-adviser’s “Life Museum”, as a place for professional development exchange and cross-cultural comparison of methodologies used.

We will present the work you have been doing with Shawn (giving the credit you deserve) and the ideas for my research project on family learning in Brazilian Museums. This will be a great opportunity for me to network and narrow down the focus of my research as to what is actually doable within the Brazilian context and with the partners I will be able to get involved with. Generally, we will focus on new methodologies available with the Cyber Lab technological tools and, this way, create opportunities for methodologies to be replicated cross-culturally. They are very interested in what we do, and if we are successful in creating such partnerships, your work at the lab will contribute to the developing field of visitor-focused research in Brazil.

We will keep you updated of what goes on. In addition to post the experience here upon our return. We will probably post and live twit while there to share our immediate impressions and issues raised.

That is it for now. I am so happy to go back home (and I have never been in Rio). I am even happier to go back for this purpose, as I truly want to contribute to this research field in Brazil. Hope I will!


My apologies as I was supposed to post this yesterday but with all of our Labor Day activities I forgot to publish it.

I thought I would take a break from the wave tank activities I am working on at the Hatfield Marine Science Center and write about a different but equally exciting part of my academic life. I am finally back on track with my PhD since returning from maternity leave. Hurray!

It is set, I will conduct my research in my home country – Brazil! The plan is to write my proposal in the Fall and collect data next Summer. I have been reading all the relevant literature available for Brazilian museum research and the likes. I  have a Brazilian museologist as a co-adviser, who specializes in family studies and who will help us establish a partnership among our group and their research’s group at the “Museum da Vida”, which means Museum of Life in portuguese (http://www.museudavida.fiocruz.br). Within the Brazilian context, the largest percentage of museum visitors are composed of school/academic groups and a great number of Brazilian museums are cultural/historical museums. However, I have decided to do research on a  Brazilian FCL environment focused on marine education. As of now I have a couple of options but I will likely do research at the  “Centro do Peixe-Boi” (Manatee Center) located on a Northeast island called Itamaraca in my home state of Pernambuco.

I still have not completely decided the aspects I will be looking at but quite possibly will involve the atypical groups of visitors composed of families that come to the beach and conveniently visit the center as it sits in such a prime location. It is an argument that such visitors may not even see the center as a museum, so it would be great to investigate their perceptions and how they compare it to other more “clearly” defined museums. My Fall semester will be filled with excitment as Shawn and I decide the focus of our research, which will also depends on logistics and partners we can acquire there to facilitate my research. Therefore, Shawn and I are planning a trip to Brazil soon to establish a partnership between our group and my co-adviser’s research group. We will have the chance to talk about the research we do at Hatfield to the Brazilian museum researchers, present my proposal and start networking.

I am really excited to dive into this and start contribute to a field yet to be further developed in Brazil. I am quite confident our proposal will be well received  among the local marine educator community and will open the doors to many more that maybe “YOU” can be involved with.  I will post more details about the project as we go…



This follows Nick’s post on “preparing for a different type of Tsunami”, when he discussed initial challenges of the tsunami tank exhibit, especially in terms of the Lego activity and resources used.  Nick pointed out some mechanical/ physical challenges already encountered during initial prototyping but nevertheless said he was confident that the exhibit will be fun, interesting, and popular among Hatfield visitors.

POPULAR without a doubt! I have done some observations and brought in some groups to test the Lego activity at the tank and already can tell you Nick, the tsunami tank will most certainly be very popular. As a consequence, challenges to the exhibit are not only related to the resources used in the activity as you pointed out and whether it works or not, but also brings up issues of crowd management, flow and accessibility to the tank area and interactions among visitors.


In sum, here are some main points that surfaced from my short prototype:

a) The Lego activity and concept for the tank seem to generally work, apart from a few glitches already being addressed such as computer malfunctions and the sanding of Lego blocks so that they don’t stick so strongly together causing poorly constructed structures to stay firm after a potentially strong tsunami wave.

b) There is a need for establishing some rules for building structures so that participants won’t just build a solid square block that will stand still no matter what. The rules during the prototype were that each participant gets a cup full of Legos and have to build a structure of whatever shape but that will not surpass eight blocks tall to survive a tsunami wave. However, a few malfunctions were observed. As an example, the cup idea did not work well as most groups will go to the activity table and search for parts they want to use that were not in their cups.

c) Groups, especially children will spend a long…long time at the tank, which is good and challenging at the same time since crowds accumulate around and things can get really chaotic pretty fast. Creating clearly defined stations for building structures, providing a set of steps to be followed (through a facilitator or signage) and reinforcing time management can address the issue. Although I am afraid there isn’t really a definite solution for that, and at some degree we will have to rely on the visitors themselves (especially parents) to make good judgments and facilitate the process.

d) Visitors have LOTS OF FUN, interact and participate in shared learning.  After all, isn’t that the important aspects to cultivate if we are trying to facilitate learning?

Other subsequent observations were also made when the tank was opened to the public for a day with no facilitator and all my initial speculations were confirmed that crowd management will pose a huge issue, and while some creative solutions are on the making, the exhibit will need constant prototyping through time and even after it is completely opened to the public in order to minimize the problem.  Should I even call it a problem in the very sense of the word? Maybe I should say it is a good problem to have.

The exhibit has all the potential to foster active prolonged engagement (APE) and promote meaningful interactions. Humphrey and Gutwill (2005) importantly point out that APE exhibits are empowering to visitors as they can take pleasure in “observing, playing, investigating, exploring, collaborating, searching and speculating”. That is what I just saw groups starting to do at the tsunami tank.

(Humphrey, T., Gutwill, J. P., & Exploratorium (Organization). (2005). Fostering active prolonged engagement: The art of creating APE exhibits. San Francisco: Exploratorium).




Our Free Choice Learning Lab group took our first field trip last Tuesday… Hurray!

We visited the Science Factory Children’s Museum and Exploration Dome and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, both located in Eugene, OR. This field trip and the ones yet to come are intended to get our group out and about! Outside our offices and interacting with others in the  field. The objective is getting to know our local museums, their facilities, staff and  educational programs, making connections and establishing partnerships with those institutions to crate a network supporting professional exchange and development. The Science Factory and the Museum of Art are the first two in a “Friends of the Free-Choice Learning Lab” list I am creating to support such exchange. THANK YOU VERY MUCH!  And… for all of you reading this blog, please let me know your suggestions about what kind of network I should create to better support these forming relationships, as you may know I am not technologically inclined and would appreciate some input as to what you think would be a good way to do this.

I should acknowledge the awesome people we got to talk to during this field trip. From the Science Factory, we talked to Nick Spicher (Education Director), Kim Miller (Operations Director) and Carolyn Rebbert (Executive Director). From the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and UO, many thanks to Sharon Kaplan (Museum Educator for Academic and Public Programs) and Phaedra Linvingstone (Assistant professor in Museum Studies at UO, Coordinator of the Art and Administration Graduate Program). We really appreciate your time and willingness to talk to us about your institution and educational programs and sure hope our group can collaborate with you in the future. We had an awesome time! At the Factory we literally just blended right in with the 48 children around for summer camps. We were also mesmerized at the beauty of the Museum of Art and really enjoyed our experience. Bellow are some photos of us having a really really fun but nevertheless intellectually rich time during our trip.


FCL lab group at the Science Factory.


Recyclotron Exhibit, preventing balls from ending up in the landfill


Laura and Michelle racing wheels


Optical Illusion... Laura was becoming me...


Courtyard at the Museum of Art
Shawn, Katie and Phaedra at the Museum of Art
The group at the Museum of Art Courtyard


If you want to know more about the Science Factory please visit http://www.sciencefactory.org

For Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art visit http://jsma.uoregon.edu/default.aspx

Thank you Dr. Shawn Rowe for providing this opportunity for our lab and thanks to all that joined us and contributed to a very pleasant day OUT AND ABOUT!