Busloads of kids get surprise trip to Toys”R”Us

Today the post is NOT an advertisement for Toys”R”Us, it is rather a horrifying realization that it is viewed acceptable by this multimillion dollar corporations choice of “props” as a ploy for the children without the thought of insulting an entire profession or the positive role field trips play in the lives of children. The bus is covered over with the “Meet the Trees Foundation” so the students think they are going into nature and have activities related to trees. When I was teaching in the inner city, this was a highlight of the year to go to the county, hike and wade into the Chesapeake Bay. Many of the children had not EVER set foot into a natural source of water prior to this trip or seen trees growing outside of the ones planned along the city sidewalks. Research like that of Bryan Rebar (Associate Director; STEM CORE at University of Oregon) supports the importance of the role field trips play in meaning making for young learners. To use this with such disregard in advertising, is appalling to me as an educator and free choice learner researcher. I encourage you to watch the video and form your own views. There is an open letter to Toys “R” Us from North American Association for Environmental Education – NAAEE if you would like to follow this further. I look forward to your comments below.

Shawn and I will be going to the National Association for Interpretation Workshop this week in Reno, Nevada. We will be talking to interpreters about bridging the gaps between Free-Choice Learning research and Interpretive practice, “mining the nuggets” for cross-communication and visibility among professionals in both worlds, discussing potential benefits from interdisciplinary use of concepts, principles and research findings towards the shared goal among both communities of practice.

Museums are informal education settings where Free-Choice Learning (FCL) takes place and where educators and practitioners are also interpreters. FCL in such settings draws from strong learning theories and their contextual application, targeting audiences such as museum educators, evaluation staff, exhibit designers, program developers, volunteer personnel and volunteer managers. These are also the targeted practitioners mediating learning in museums through use of interpretive tools, principles and resources.

Given the complimentary nature of practice in both FCL and Interpretation fields, understanding cross-disciplinary potential and dissemination are ways to create collaborative resources and further the research and understanding of how learning takes place in museums, how the theoretical discourses relate to/build upon interpretive principles and use of interpretive tools. This confluence can have meaningful implications on interpretive program design and implementation in museum settings and others alike, as to promote valuable learning experiences for visitors.

This is what we will be brainstorming at the workshop. So bloggers please respond with any insights you may have on possible collaboration avenues and links you consider important to be made here.



For my first blog post, I used my space to be a Make evangelist. This time, I thought I would tell you a bit about why I am such a fan, and what I think Make has to share with other educators- both formal in informal.

Maker Spaces, both in community and school settings, are spaces that nurture innovation and experimentation.  With an emphasis on coming up with ideas or projects and then tinkering with materials in hands-on ways to find solutions, Make is a philosophy that embodies the notion of valuing process over product.  There is also a perception that ideas and creations can always be improved upon, so even when you are done making something, you could probably still tweak it to be better, more aesthetic, more efficient, or more interesting.  There does not have to be an “end goal”.

There is also a strong culture of mentoring. As community spaces, there is an emphasis on open sharing of skills as well as tools.  People regularly offer their expertise to someone else who is struggling with a project.  As part of the Maker Education initiative, Make is partnering with AmeriCorps to offer training to a MakerCorp so there is a population of young adults comfortable with the Make principles as well as some of the materials who are prepared to go forth and mentor young Makers.  If you are curious about some of their resources, here is a link for you http://makered.org/resources/.

One of the most important features, to me at least, is the interest driven nature of Make experiences.  While MakerSpaces do offer workshops for members to gain new skills with tools and such, if you walk in to one of the spaces during an open work time, you will find a wide variety of projects out as each person explores ideas and activities they are curious about.

I am hopeful that Make is here to stay and will continue to offer collaborative, hands-on experiences for all of us to become more active as producers, as well as consumers of technology!

Today this blog post will be a bit different for me. I usually do not write about things that are outside of my research, however as a female scientist, I would like to help spread the word about a fairly new resolution from the United Nations in 2011 – October 11th is International Day of the Girl. This year’s theme is “Innovating for Girls’ Education” with the philosophy that if girls are educated, this creates a better world for everyone. Attending classes on campus, walking the streets in Corvallis or even when I visit family back east, it is hard for me to remember that today in 2013 there are still so many females that have no or little access to learning. Education First reports that 33 % fewer girls than boys are enrolled in any form of a primary school setting (formal or home school settings).

Self-efficacy in many forms play some key roles in educational and learning research. I hope Larry Enchos approves of my summary here (but as this is a blog and is to be informal in nature here goes) it is when one believes that one can do something, they actually achieve it or do it better than when one thinks they can’t do it or has fear of the topic. For me and the population of in-service and pre-service educators I have had the pleasure of working with, this is important in science, especially in elementary science. Research suggests that elementary teachers often shy away from the topic of science out of fear or a belief that they are “bad” at “doing” science. Ok, that was my very short summary and now back to the topic of International Day of the Girl. From this day that now has been set aside by the UN, part of it is to empower girls in every community and to improve their self-efficacy, not per say in science, but in just the thought that they themselves are valuable individuals with special things to offer society. They are worth society’s investment; they are worth educating. When completing my MS at Oregon State University in Geography, one of my professors completed his PhD work in a community in Kenya. At the time it was so very impoverished that it was heart breaking. He worked with the local women to help them organize their native skills, taught them simple math and record keeping and over the time of his research the transformation was amazing. His research is impressive in his field, however he is most remembered for this “side” work. Educating the women in that village was transformational.

Below is taken directly from the UN website on the International Day of the Girl. As Free Choice Educators, it is important for us to remember that whatever our topic is that we are helping to prepare for the general public to encounter in our free choice learning settings, we should try to make the topic accessible and transformational as it may be the first time this individual is encountering this information.

“The fulfillment of girls’ right to education is first and foremost an obligation and moral imperative. There is also overwhelming evidence that girls’ education, especially at the secondary level, is a powerful transformative force for societies and girls themselves: it is the one consistent positive determinant of practically every desired development outcome, from reductions in mortality and fertility, to poverty reduction and equitable growth, to social norm change and democratization.
While there has been significant progress in improving girls’ access to education over the last two decades, many girls, particularly the most marginalized, continue to be deprived of this basic right. Girls in many countries are still unable to attend school and complete their education due to safety-related, financial, institutional and cultural barriers. Even when girls are in school, perceived low returns from poor quality of education, low aspirations, or household chores and other responsibilities keep them from attending school or from achieving adequate learning outcomes. The transformative potential for girls and societies promised through girls’ education is yet to be realized.
Recognizing the need for fresh and creative perspectives to propel girls’ education forward, the 2013 International Day of the Girl Child will address the importance of new technology, but also innovation in partnerships, policies, resource utilization, community mobilization, and most of all, the engagement of young people themselves.
All UN agencies, Member States, civil society organizations, and private sector actors have potential tools to innovate for and with girls to advance their education. Examples of possible steps include:
Improved public and private means of transportation for girls to get to school—from roads, buses, mopeds, bicycles to boats and canoes;
Collaboration between school systems and the banking industry to facilitate secure and convenient pay delivery to female teachers and scholarship delivery to girls;
Provision of science and technology courses targeted at girls in schools, universities and vocational education programs;
Corporate mentorship programs to help girls acquire critical work and leadership skills and facilitate their transition from school to work;
Revisions of school curricula to integrate positive messages on gender norms related to violence, child marriage, sexual and reproductive health, and male and female family roles;
Deploying mobile technology for teaching and learning to reach girls, especially in remote areas.
Girls face discrimination and violence every day across the world. The International Day of the Girl Child focuses attention on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights.


This past weekend, I was able to watch the first episode of Dream School – a reality show that follows students who have not succeeded in traditional school as they come back for a second chance at getting a high school education and diploma.  These kids are taught by celebrity educators.  These are people who have been deemed successful in the eyes of the world in their respective fields.  The hope is that the success of these individuals will motivate the unmotivated.

Watching the first episode reminded me of why I started going down the free choice learning (FCL) road.  In the British pilot, well-known historian and documentarian Dr. David Starkey takes on a group of students and has an amazing lesson plan – Bling through the ages.  As a history channel watching geek and lover of most things bling, I thought, AWESOME.  This is going to be a good one.  Well, you judge for yourself – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkrhhlAQgu0.

I think the premise of this show is in indicator of what is happening in our society.  This interesting infographic by the Huffington Post gives us some statistics around the phenomenon or epidemic, depending on your point of view- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/03/sundance-infographic-americas-school_n_4032373.html.  Our schools do not seem to be addressing the learning needs of a large portion of the next generation.  Can lessons from FCL help?  If you guess that I would answer affirmatively, you would be correct.  But I think that the answer, as many answers to life’s hard questions, is not as simple as that.  There is a lot that FCL needs to take into consideration before leaping into a hero-saving mode of formal learning environments.

The biggest issue that FCL has is scalability.  Museums, zoos, and informal learning venues are excellent at accommodating large groups and introducing them to interesting concepts and themes.  But the information that groups get are just morsels or amuse-bouches of knowledge.  The exhibits titillate, provoke, and stimulate the mind, but there is little research that demonstrates the long-term acquisition of larger concepts or building of sequential knowledge.  There is a much needed socio-cultural place for FCL environments, but until we can hold learners for a long period of time and move them from point A to point D, formal learning environments will still be the environment that fosters this type of learning.

The next biggest issue that FCL environments have is assessing the learner.  There are so many stimuli and learners arrive with many preconceived ideas and misconceptions, it is difficult to truly assess what the individual is actually learning in a FCL environment.  The best we can do as social scientists is to see how learning is occurring and take a snapshot of the learner at that time and space.  This is not to say that formal environments really know how to do this well.  On the contrary.  It is just that the formal environments have more years of trying to do it.

The final big hurdle is the culture.  Learning and motivation are culturally rooted.  And whether FCL environments want to admit or not, they are cultural institutions imparting a certain way of looking at the world.  Art museums, aquariums, and science centers all impart a certain perspective and view.  The problem doesn’t come with that view – it comes with not acknowledging that they hold that view.  Art museums deem what is beautiful.  Aquariums deem what is worth seeing of the ocean.  And science centers show a western perspective of science.  But they do not hold the corner on what is beautiful, worthy, or scientific.  These institutions help us narrow down from a vast field into digestible facts, but in the narrowing down comes a belief that their visitors will only need to deem that beautiful, worthy, or scientific. They sometimes forget that there is a large world of “other” available for their visitors and from which their visitors come.  It is in remembering this and embracing it when crosses their thresholds which make the FCL environment transcend the cultural institution to a true place of learning.  Yet, as I write this, I know it is a difficult task to accomplish – difficult but not impossible.  Again, this is not something that the formal environment has conquered in the least.

These are some of the biggest challenges I see FCL environments facing and why they cannot be the panacea for our ailing educational system.  But I definitely think they have their place in learning, something that formal educators are really beginning to embrace.  What about you?  Do you agree with these areas or do you think I am selling FCL short?

Super Mario moves like a machine.

He almost never turns around unless he must. He runs rightward. He jumps rightward. He crouches and slides under bricks without slowing. He acquires coins. He kills with fire and boot-heel. Still he runs. Rightward—ever rightward.

Finally, a difficult jump briefly halts his progress. Super Mario dies. For now.

My wife puts down the controller. It’s my turn, and Luigi’s. I went from the Atari 2600 straight to the Super Nintendo in my youth. The NES, while much-loved and present in my childhood memories, was not a major factor in my early development as a gamer.

Luigi looks terrified, and far from Super. He hesitates. He backtracks. He pauses. He approaches his first Goomba anxiously, and his jump is ragged and imprecise. The original Super Mario Bros. has somewhat drifty controls compared to its successors, and it always takes me some time to re-adjust. Too long.

Death comes quickly to Luigi. My wife finishes the game a few lives later, with Mario’s triumphant campaign only infrequently punctuated by Luigi’s fitful progress and inevitable tragedies.

Non-verbal communication among players is a big part of tabletop gaming, and I’ll be looking at that as I analyze interactios around my game Deme. However, as in the anecdote above, games—electronic or otherwise—come with their own non-verbal cues and even a body language of sorts. This can be more noticeable when players aren’t able to physically observe or interact with each other.

An arrangement of chess pieces could be interpreted as aggressive or defensive. A player’s confidence and skill can show in online games through movement and action. In these cases, with in-game actions—and sometimes movement—being limited and uniform, interactions come at least partially pre-coded for the researcher.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, and you can see it just about everywhere. I’m a big fan of playing games together with friends and family in the same room, but I’ve often been amazed by how much meaningful information I’ve exchanged online with fellow players I’ve never seen, and with whom I’ve never exhanged a typed or spoken word. Feints, counter-feints, acknowledgements, threats, camaraderie, humor—humans will find ways to communicate with any tools available. In online games, these tools may be anything from complex role-playing avatars to playing cards or two-dimensional spaceships.

Would anyone else like to share an anecdote or two about nonverbal communication within games? The novel ways people find to convey a message can often be just as interesting as the message itself.