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.


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.

lights     dino     tinkering


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!


As I wind down the first year of my Master’s program, I have had a chance to reflect on the different accomplishments achieved within the Cyberlab, the classroom, and professionally.  I have had the chance to wear many hats beyond the typical “grad student” role.  For example, I have been a server administrator, sound engineer, exhibit maintenance support, logistics manager, and lab ambassador…to name a few.  So many different opportunities have led to new learning experiences that I had not anticipated.  As there is no manual for setting up a “Cyberlab,” I feel I have so much more insight now to share with other groups that may attempt this in their institution for learning research.

As of this week, 30 cameras have been installed around multiple exhibits to capture interactions and movement.  We now have great views of the octopus tank, the touch pools, wave tanks, the touchtable, touchwall, and Magic Planet.  The image included in this post is an example of one such view in our Rhythms Room.  Several cameras can be used to monitor the traffic flow and patterns as visitors circulate the center.  Our BlackFly and Flea (facial recognition) cameras recently came in, which creates unique issues with mounting these small pieces of technology.  We have enlisted the support of an engineer with access to a 3-D printer that can be used to custom build to our needs.  We hope to have these cameras installed within the next few weeks to begin testing the facial recognition capabilities.  More progress with each passing day.


One of the Cyberlab cameras captures the Rhythms Room at Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Today I am heading to St. Paul, Minnesota, for the Science on a Sphere workshop at the Minnesota Science Museum.  As we have the Magic Planet exhibit (pictured above), a globe that displays different visualizations of environmental processes, this will be a chance to connect with other institutions that have this form of exhibit in a public space and talk about use and the direction of this technology.  I am excited for the chance to help represent the Cyberlab and showcase what is in place at Hatfield Marine Science Center to support other researchers around the country and world.  Hopefully we will meet some potential collaborators and new Cyberscholars.  I am also looking forward to visiting a science museum I have not been to before.  My perspective of the museum has changed, meaning that I often take a step back to analyze the exhibit and the interactions taking place around it.  I need to remind myself to also be a “visitor” as I will be wearing my researcher “hat” plenty this summer!




Awhile ago, I promised to share some of my experiences in collecting data on visitors’ exhibit use as part of this blog. Now that I’ve actually been back at it for the past few weeks, I thought it might be time to actually share what I’ve found. As it is winter here in the northern hemisphere, our weekend visitation to the Hatfield Visitor Center is generally pretty low. This means I have to time my data collection carefully if I don’t want to spend an entire day waiting for subjects and maybe only collect data on two people. That’s what happened on a Sunday last month; the weather on the coast was lovely, and visitation was minimal. I have been recently collecting data in our Rhythms of the Coastal Waters exhibit, which has additional data collection challenges in that it is basically the last thing people might see before they leave the center, it’s dim because it houses the projector-based Magic Planet, and there are no animals, unlike just about every other corner of the Visitor Center. So, I knocked off early and went to the beach. Then I definitely rescheduled another day I was going to collect data because it was a sunny weekend day at the coast.

On the other hand, on a recent Saturday we hosted our annual Fossil Fest. While visitation was down from previous years, only about 650 compared to 900, this was plenty for me, and I was able to collect data on 13 people between 11:30 and 3:30, despite an octopus feeding and a lecture by our special guest fossil expert. Considering data collection, including recruitment, consent, the experiment, and debrief probably runs 15 minutes, I thought that this was a big win. In addition, I only got one refusal from a group that said they were on their way out and didn’t have time. It’s amazing how much better things go if you a) lead with “I’m a student doing research,” b) mention “it will only take about 5-10 minutes”, and c) don’t record any video of them. I suspect it also helps that it’s not summer, as this crowd is more local and thus perhaps more invested in improving the center, whereas summer tourists might be visiting more for the experience, to say they’ve been there, as John Falk’s museum visitor “identity” or motivation research would suggest. This would seem to me like a motivation that would not make you all that eager to participate. Hm, sounds like a good research project to me!

Another reason I suspect things went well was that I am generally approaching only all-adult groups, and I only need one participant from each group, so someone can watch the kids if they get bored. I did have one grandma get interrupted a couple times, though, by her grandkids, but she was a trooper and shooed them away while she finished. When I was recording video and doing interviews about the Magic Planet, the younger kids in the group often got bored, which made recruiting families and getting good data somewhat difficult, though I didn’t have anyone quit early once they agreed to participate. Also, as opposed to prototyping our salmon forecasting exhibit, I wasn’t asking people to sit down at a computer and take a survey, which seemed to feel more like a test to some people. Or it could have been the exciting new technology I was using, the eye-tracker, that was appealing to some.

Interestingly, I also had a lot of folks observe their partners as the experiment happened, rather than wander off and meet up later, which happened more with the salmon exhibit prototyping, perhaps because there was not much to see if one person was using the exhibit. With the eye-tracking and the Magic Planet, it was still possible to view the images on the globe because it is such a large exhibit. Will we ever solve the mystery of what makes the perfect day for data collection? Probably not, but it does present a good opportunity for reflection on what did and didn’t seem to work to get the best sample of your visitorship. The cameras we’re installing are of course intended to shed some light on how representative these samples are.

What other influences have you seen that affect whether you have a successful or slow day collecting exhibit use data?


This post by Nina Simon raises some great, eternal questions about visitor engagement.  Free-choice learning, by definition, entails agency on the part of the learner.  What’s the best way to allow and inspire visitors to provide input and exercise that agency?  Simon states the problem well:

“The fundamental question here is how we balance different modes of audience engagement. You could argue that visitors are more “engaged” by an activity that invites inquiry-based participation than one that invites them to read a label, even if they never get answers to their questions. Or, you could argue that this kind of active engagement should be secondary to sharing information, which can be more efficiently communicated by a label.”

In other news, the Magic Planet has finished its first round of upgrades.  We’ll be doing more work with it next week.

We are taking measurements for the wave tank as we speak. Getting the mechanics right will be a bit of a challenge within our exhibit space. We went over to The Hinsdale Wave Lab on Thursday to look at their tanks and discuss the physics. Nothing replaces talking to the experts—we learned a lot. The challenge is to create a properly scaled environment with properly scaled waves. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to create a realistic model with a maximum length of 25 feet. Easy as that.

We’re considering some major upgrades to the Magic Planet, which will prepare it for the upcoming work we will do with a larger remote sensing exhibit space. Greater luminosity and a more robust cooling system will be huge enhancements and mitigate some maintenance issues.

The hunt for an ideal eye-tracking system continues, but we are getting close to what we want. Apart from how accurately and elegantly a system tracks eye movement, we must consider how it collects and exports data. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the conclusion of Katie’s eye-tracking adventure, which she began in the last post.

In the meantime, we now have a Twitter feed: @FreeChoiceLab