The end (I hope) and the beginning

Both Laura and I defend next week, which is why the blog has been a little quiet of late. So, hopefully, it’s the end of our dissertations, and the beginning (or really, continuations) of careers working to create fun and engaging science learning opportunities for all. We both came into the program with a lot of years of actually doing outreach, with a little bit of experience in designing programs and even less in evaluating them. Now we’re set to leave with a great set of tools to maximize these programs and hopefully share the ideas we’ve learned with the broader field as we go.

So that’s set us to thinking about where we go from here. Now I have to build a broader research project that maybe builds off of the dissertation, but the dissertation was so self-contained, and relatively concrete in a way, that the idea of being able to do multiple things again is a bit daunting. I’m almost not sure where to begin! I will have some structure, of course, provided by the grant funding I get, and the partnerships I join. However, it’s important to think about what I want to achieve before I worry about the tools with which to do it – as always, start with the outcomes and work backwards.

It’s fortunate, then, that the lab group has started to discuss our broader research interests with the hopes of finding where they intersect in order to guide future discussions. We’ve been using prezi, creating frames for each sort of focus, then intending to “code” these frames by grouping those with similar topics and ideas. For example, one of my interests at this point is everyday scientist adults keeping current with professional science research developments, for purposes of using that information in their own personal and societal decisions, or simply for keeping tabs on how tax dollars are put to work, or for any other purpose they so desire. So, I’m interested in the hows, whens, and whys of everyday scientists accessing professional science information. This means I overlap with others in the groups working with museum exhibits, but also with people interested in public dialogue events, and in general, the affordances and constraints around learning in these ways.

As the leader of the group, Shawn has mentioned that this has been an exercise he’s used to think about his broader research goals as well, simply writing down his areas of focus, looking back at what he’s done over the past few years, and looking forward to where he wants to go. It also helps him to see what’s matched with his previous plans, and how circumstances or opportunities have changed those plans. I’m grateful to have this fortuitously-timed example of long-term goal setting and building a broader agenda, especially in such a small field where it’s likely that this is the largest group of collaborators in one place that I’ll have for a while. Hopefully, though, I’ll have my own graduate students before too long and maybe even other colleagues who focus on outside-of-school learning as well.

What sorts of tools do you use for figuring out long-term, broad, and somewhat abstract research goals?


What’s the Bleeding Edge for Museums?

Last week, I talked about our eye-tracking in the science center at the Museums and the Web 2013 conference, as part of a track on Evaluating the Museum. This was the first time I’d attended this conference, and it turned out to be very different from others I’d attended. This, I think, meant that eye-tracking was a little ahead of where the audience of the conference was in some ways and behind in others!

Many of the attendees seemed to be from the art museum world, which has some different and some similar issues to those of science centers – we each have our generally separate professional organizations (American Association of Museums) and (Association of Science and Technology Centers). In fact, the opening plenary speaker, Larry Fitzgerald, made the point that museums should be thinking of ways that they can distinguish themselves from formal schools. He suggested that a lot of the ways museums are currently trying to get visitors to “think” look very much like they ways people think in schools, rather than the ways people think “all the time.” He mentioned “discovery centers” (which I took to mean interactive science centers), as places that are already trying to leverage the ways people naturally think (hmm, free-choice learning much?).

The twitter reaction and tone of other presentations made me think that this was actually a relatively revolutionary idea for a lot of folks there. My sense is that probably that stems from a different institutional culture that prevents much of that, except for places like Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, where Nina Simon is re-vamping the place around participation of community members.

So, overall, eye-tracking and studying what our visitors do was also a fairly foreign concept; one tweet wondered whether a museum’s mission needed to be visitor-centric. Maybe museums that don’t have to rely on ticket sales can rest on that, but the conference was trying to push a bit that museums are changing, away from places where people come to find the answer, or the truth and instead to be places of participation. That means some museums may also be generally lagging the idea of getting funding to study visitors at all, let alone spending large amounts on “capital” equipment, and since eye-trackers are expensive technologies designed basically only for that purpose, it seemed just a little ahead of where some of the conference participants were. I’ll have to check back in a few years and see h0w things are changing. As we talked about in our lab meeting this morning, a lot of diversity work in STEM free-choice learning is happening not in academia, but in (science) museums. Maybe that will change in a few years, as well, as OSU continues to shape its Science and Mathematics Education faculty and graduate programs.


Standardize Testing and Free Choice – What is happening?

For my blog post today I have been thinking about many different things. So now that it is time, I am going to proceed with the topic that has mostly entered into my head when thinking about this post – testing. I know that it is not truly a free choice learning topic as testing is often associated with standard school functions, however I want to bring forth that the more experiences you have outside of school should in theory support the success of testing. With that said, I am truly not a fan of standardized testing. Recently I read an article about a teacher who retired in New York after over 20 years of teaching and claimed that he no longer has a profession. This article struck me and made me think of what we do with our research in the free choice learning arena. We try to document various experiences that people have and ponder what meaning it has in their lives. Will this experience help them understand a particular concept better? Will it expand their thinking on a particular area – for example environmental issues – Will the experience of being in a free choice learning setting influence the participant to be more “open” in accepting new experiences such as touching animals in a touch tank or petting zoo? Not sure, and as group we were all looking at various data sets to reflect on these issues.

So how is this related to testing? Well our free choice learning environments are tied to the formal environments in many ways. The participants typically have had some sort of schooling. This helps shape the background knowledge brought forth by the participant. If what I am hearing from my teacher friends is true, as well as the information presented by the recently retired educator, then the experiences that the students are receiving in formal schools are largely focused on standardized testing. UGH! This in my thought process is very limiting. This limits active conversation by the teacher and students, sets an imposed timeline on pre-planned topics presented removing free flow of ideas.

How can we as educators and researcher in the free choice arena use this information when planning and when trying to implement change within the overall educational system? Do we still use any form of testing within our field? How is this testing different from the standardized ones given in the formal setting? Food for thought and hopefully future conversations.


Memos Memos Everywhere

In light of the recent posts discussing Positivism vs Interpretivism, Grounded theory approach, and the challenge of thinking about epistemology and ontology, I decided to use this post to continue the debate and share a few things I have been thinking about and doing, that I hope will help me making sense of the paradigmatic views and theoretical approaches that may eventually be a part of my research.

Research design has been a challenging task nonetheless very meaningful process to me, because I am having the chance to dig deep inside into who I am and the personal values, beliefs and goals I carry with me. To start such reflection I referred back to writing exercises, a piece that I remember was topic of the first lab meetings I participated as a member of the group, and that inspired me to find ways to apply different kinds if exercises to research design. As a result of that and of the ongoing advanced qualitative class I am taking right now, my computer file folder entitled “Memos” is growing very quickly as I go through the process of writing my proposal and thinking about my research design.

I am using many forms of memos. I got myself a research “journal” that I am using to register the “brilliant” ideas I come across one way or another during this process, not only ideas for  research goals/ methods/ questions, etc… but also epiphanies  on concepts, theories and how I am making sense of them as they apply to my research. I am carrying it with me everywhere I go because, believe me, ideas pop up unexpectedly in very strange situations. The goal is not to loose track of my thought process as it evolves into a conceptual framework for my research. Saying it bluntly, I want to be able to say clearly why I choose the approach that I choose for my design and how I justify it.

To start this search for my own clarification about where in the world of qualitative research I sit in, which I assumed would inform my methodological choices, I wrote my first memo as a class exercise – a “Researcher Identity Memo”.  It may sound very “elementary” to some of you, but I saw this exercise as opening the doors of my own path through understanding why I seat where I seat right now,  how I came to be here, and where I can potentially go. The memo was a reflective exercise about past experiences in life, upbringing, values and beliefs that I may see connected to the topic of research I choose to investigate, how would I predict that as facilitating or imposing challenge to my work as a researcher. This turned out to be 6 pages document that brought out 3 personas in me that equally influenced my decisions. The educator, the scientist, and a concerned citizen of this world. The synergies between the values, beliefs, experiences, goals and interests of each got me to decided on my research topic (family “affordances” to learning at the touch-tank exhibit at HMSC).

This actually made me rethink my research goals to identify personal, practical and intellectual interests as they combine to answer the “so what?” of my research idea. In fact, “the evolution of my research questions” is another ongoing memo I am working at as my questions emerge, evolve, change, etc. I also have a mini notebook on a key chain attached to my wallet for when those revealing moments happen as I have dialogues with other professional like yourselves or want to write a quick reference to look at later. I think the practice of writing these memos is helping me untangled bits of theoretical debates that I am slowly making sense of , and that are helping me se where I sit.

Now if you are not too fan of writing, if you avoid writing exercises like the plague, Laura suggests to use alternatives ways of registering this moments. She told me she used her phone to record a voice memo the other days. How you do it is not the key issue, but I think it is important that you find a way  that works for you that you can register the evolution of your thought process. Going through a few conversations with Shawn during our weekly meetings, he articulated an approach he thinks I seating on right now for my research. he bursted out these big words together that I am still trying to work trough but that emerged smoothly and almost instantly out of his mind. He called it “Neo-Kantian Post-positivist and Probabilistic Theory of Truth”. I hope he wasn’t tricking me :). Here is the way I see where I stand right now in my less eloquent philosophical terms:

1. Departing from axiological views, I am interested in explanations and descriptions of real meaningful events, why and how questions.

2. Therefore, I am moving from “data to theory”, through inductive questioning

3. As for what is the nature of reality? (ontology), I think I compromise in between objectivity and subjectivity, is there a possible inter-objectivity or inter-subjectivity?

4. As for what counts as reality? (Epistemology), I tend to associate with Social-Cosntructivism.

So,  I using the following schema as a wall decoration in my research room:

Epistemology – Social-Constructivism; Theoretical perspective/ Approach – Interpretivism; Suited Methodology: Grounded Theory.

However, I see myself as open to new topics, ideas. So I am adopting a paradigm but it does not necessarily mean that I will completely oppose combining aspects of other paradigms. I read in a piece of literature once that “sometimes we need a little constructivism, and sometimes we need a little realism”. While I oppose to think radically about it, I do think that it is important to use existing theories critically, and if  you are to be critical you are open to testing (hermeneutics). Here is were I seat in conflict between objectivity and subjectivity, qualitative and quantitative values, and that is why I intend to use mixed methods

I don’t know if this links perfectly to the definition of the approach Shawm saw me taking, But boy, I am happy to be going through this discovery process right now, and memos are really helping me along the way.

Susan