Identity, community and the new year

Maybe I’ve been around universities too long, but fall always seems like New Year’s to me.  Part of it, of course, is the excitement of a new school year – new classes, new students and colleagues, new projects.  Classes start this week in Corvallis, and I’m gearing up to teach a class I’ve taught many times before – Communicating Ocean Sciences with Informal Audiences.  If you are not familiar with the class, check out the website here.  One of the reasons I love teaching this class is because even though I was involved from the get go in helping imagine and design it, it seems new every time I teach it.  Part of it is that constant tweaking that comes with reflecting on what we like and don’t like about our teaching.  But the COSIA class also seems to be a great palate for thinking about and working on a whole variety of themes and ideas and topics that emerge in informal science education and free-choice learning work.  The twin themes that are running through my head as I develop the class this year are identity and community.

We just learned last week that we were awarded a new NSF AISL grant called COASSTal Communities of Science. The project partners the FCL Lab with University of Washington researchers Julia Parrish and Jane Dolliver who run a very successful and impressive citizen science project, COASST, that spans beaches from Alaska through Northern California.  With this new grant, COASST is responding to volunteers, communities they serve, and national calls for citizen scientists to address the issue of marine debris in the Pacific Northwest.  COASST will be developing new protocols and modules for monitoring marine debris that should bring to that realm the same level of rigor and engagement that their current program has been recognized for.  I’m excited because our role in this project is to carry out research on recruitment and retention of citizen scientists in both COASST’s traditional programming as well as the new marine debris modules.  We’ll be looking at a host of factors that affect both, trying to understand the complex relationships among personal, social, cultural and ecological factors supporting the program.  I’m even more excited because we have developed an Activity Theory framework for the qualitative and quantitative parts of the study and will be looking explicitly at COASST as a community (or communities) of practice.  We’ll be researching participants’ identities vis-à-vis the science they are involved in and how those identities develop and change over time.

This research focus on communities of practice and identity change will inevitably shape the look and feel of the COSIA class this fall as well.  At the most basic level, we’ll all be working in the class to develop a short-term community of practice around communicating ocean sciences.  But at the larger level, the class itself is designed to help scientists and educators in graduate school at OSU develop identities as people who are comfortable and expert not only in their science, but also expert at communicating it.  For many folks who take the class this means changing their understanding of a whole variety of things – from the nature of science to the nature of teaching and learning.  We are encouraging them to do nothing less than become a different kind of person—and they are learning that when we ask people to learn about OUR science, we may be asking them to become different kinds of people – the kind of people who care about and want to be involved in science.  And that’s identity change at work.  Once you recognize that, models of communication based on experts getting knowledge out to publics just don’t hold any water anymore.  Communication is about shifting and shaping identities as much as about shaping knowledge.  That means that the stakes are always higher than you think and that even the simple act of facilitating a density activity at a local museum might be about negotiating identity as much as having fun with water!


In the eyes of a graphic designer (By Zack Starker)

My name is Zach and I’m a graphic designer working at the Hatfield Science Center.  I handle all kinds of work that needs to be done for exhibits, posters and signage for the center.  Its a new field for graphic designers and I’m very excited to be a part of it.
My work with the Tsunami exhibit started with a need to build some posters to explain the content and material the exhibit was focused on.  That remains the primary focus of my work, but the idea of the exhibit has changed to that of a whole experience and how to adequately handle the volume of people that move through the exhibit, making it easier to understand, easy to follow and easy to interact with the various activities.  All of this goes into how I design the visual material.  Its like telling a story and having all the material presented in a way that the viewer can follow through and learn systematically.  I also really enjoy working on changes to signs because observations are giving the organizers feedback as to how people are interacting with the signage, allowing me to design them better.
It has been a unique experience for me and one that is not just limited to making decisions on a poster as a stand alone unit.  My design work has to fit into a bigger and broader picture and I learn quite a bit about how people respond to design and signage through the observations, which influences my design decisions.

At the speed of a jetliner!

Did you know?

…In the deep open ocean, tsunami waves can travel at speeds approaching a jetliner (500 mph)?

…The States in the U.S at greatest risks for tsunamis are Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California

These are some of the interesting information pieces we have been working with in our signage work for the wave lab exhibit. It is such hard work and require great interpretive skills to decide what bits of info to include in what signage piece and how to keep it all cohesive, attractive, while still conveying the overall message of the exhibit. In this case, the message is that “waves affect human life in a variety of ways”.

Then we brake into three sub themes to explore the topics of beach erosion, coastal living/tsunami challenge, and wave energy. Before she left to her new job in California, Laura Good had been working on the overarching themes and sub themes, while designing signage pieces meant to represent those themes.  She came up with this construction zone idea to tie all three spaces together as belonging to the same exhibit. Below are some photos showing some of these area signage pieces as they have materialized. Note the yellow bar with black stripes symbolizing the construction zone.

Lego Table Sign    Caution wet floor sign   Beach Erosion Warning Sign   Coming together

Keep in mind this is a work in progress and in prototype phase. I will keep post on the wave lab as we progress. Wait until you see the big banner being designed to go in the back blue wall for prototype next week. It is all coming together, although not at the speed of a jetliner :).


Wilderness Camping and Cultural Views …

This last week the buzz around the house is – preparing for elk hunting, especially from our 12 year old son as this is his first time hunting. He has been practicing with his bow for months now and is very excited to hike into the wilderness to camp. However, the focus has been on practicing his with his bow and not the thought of camping in the wilderness, out of cell phone reach with only the things that you hike the 4 miles in with. As the time has gotten closer, and he and I began preparing his items for his backpack, many interesting conversations have taken place. I can’t help but think of all the various theories we quote, discuss, and write. For example, the conversation about the backpack being too heavy if you bring that. Or, well you don’t have to bring toilet paper, but what will you use in the woods – oh no there is no bathroom where you are going. Yes there have been bathrooms when we camped before but this is different. Well you can bring that, but if the battery dies, there is no place for re-charging. Don’t forget food, you will need food – what kind of food would you like to have and will that work for hiking it in? There were countless conversations like this all week, oh how I wish I had recorded them.

You ask why does this stand out to me – well I will tell you – my son who is 12 years old, who has traveled, camped and hiked before, showed me just how much our culture is dependent on modern conveniences. Almost everything in his bag first go around was removed for final packing. His normal automatic assumptions about the environment he would be hiking into for camp are based on his daily life and various camping facilities we have stayed in. This is a new experience for him, not only the hunting part, but staying in the wilderness for an extended time part – a new cultural experience that is out of his already established culture view of hiking and camping. This stood out to me in a big way through our conversations. Well at the very least he will have to process all the new experiences and decide how to incorporate them into his cultural view.


Learning: Mind, body, and exhaustion

As the school year begins, like most of you, I start reminiscing about the past summer and what I have done.  These past few months have been dedicated to learning new things. I wanted to share some of thoughts around learning that participating in these experiences has brought to the forefront.

Recently, I have taken up a new form of exercise – Bikram yoga. And like anything new, I have struggled with learning the novel ways of bending my body and thinking through the exercise.  I started thinking about this merging of body and mind and how we often think this only occurs during exercising.  But this merging also happens whenever you are learning something new.  Have you ever taken up learning a new hobby and had to readjust how you do something?  For example, keeping your wrist straight when bowling or shooting a gun? Or how to physically approach a horse you are riding or a dog you are training?  Or how to breathe as you trim and attend to a bonsai tree?  All of these learning experiences require you to adjust the way your body moves and you must be mentally present in order to make sure that you are doing the activity correctly.  By unifying body and mind, it makes the experience more meaningful and the learning deeper.

This summer, I also took the time to learn how to row.  It is a lot more difficult than it looks.  First, there is a specific technique to rowing that I never would have imagined as an important part of the sport.  It is not all in the arms as many would think, but requires a precise pattern of movement to maximize the stroke.  (For a detailed explanation, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=oP6OR-G7AxM#t=14.)  The thing about rowing is that as you are learning and practicing the technique, you must do it in cadence with other rowers.  This adds the aspect of team work into an already complicated experience.  But let’s face it – learning is often like this.  If you are in a classroom and doing a whole group activity, you must learn the content by yourself but at the same pace as the rest of the group.  This can be complicated but it is important part of the academic learning experience in this country.  Can you think of other non-academic experiences where learning is a whole group as well as an individual endeavor?

Finally, as you move along a learning experience, there comes a time when you start facing physical and mental exhaustion.  How you move through this exhaustion can also bring in elements of the spiritual and/or philosophical to the learning process.  I have faced this with swimming.  I love to swim, but the thought of pre-swimming ritual makes the whole activity daunting.  Someone recently shared with me that at times when he faces exhaustion, negative and self-defeating thoughts start creeping in.  The way he counters these self-defeating thoughts is to see them as a challenge and face them down.  He does self-talk that contradicts the negative thought and then imagines the thrill of climbing over the destructive hurdle.   Discovering how to overcome the hurdles of negativity is an important part of a learning experience.  Often we will face self-doubt and exhaustion when learning new things.  But being gentle with yourself as you learn helps the concepts to come more readily and makes the experience more enjoyable.  Or you can be aggressive like Tim Ferriss.  (http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_ferriss_smash_fear_learn_anything.html)

How about you?  What experiences have you had this summer and what have you learned about learning?