Here’s Looking at You!

So, since I never really talked much about what I was actually doing in grad school, while I was there, I decided to write this month’s blog post about my research. There is probably some irony here, but I can’t really explain it- just be excited that this post might actually show that I have done some real, academic work during the last five years.

What I want to talk about today, is one of the data collection tools I used, and why. During the time when I was still figuring out what I was going to do, beyond my grand scheme of “exploring a Maker experience with early adolescents”, I was lucky enough to get to spend hours in the car with my colleague and cohort member, Deb Bailey (now Dr. Deb Bailey!). Deb’s research interest has some parallels to mine- she explored how participation in gardening programs affected older adolescents, and we both work on the SYNERGIES project, so had time to talk about our ideas as we commuted up to the Portland area for conducting interviews and such. Deb was going to use Personal Meaning Maps with her youth, and the more we talked about it, the more I felt that they would be the perfect tool for my work too.

If you are unfamiliar with this tool, it was developed by John Falk and some of his colleagues and used in a number of studies based in museums. At first glance, it looks like a mind map or concept map. You have a piece of paper (although I guess this could all be done in iPads if you are tech savvy) with a prompt in the middle and have the participants write down words or phrases that refer to what they know, think, or believe about that topic. The next part is what was interesting to me- you interview the participant about what they have written, using their language. This appealed to me as a way to minimize my biases in the interviews.

You administer this activity twice, ideally as a pre-/post- experience, doing the interview twice too. In their second pass, they can add, remove, or change whatever they want about the initial artifact. And this was another important factor for me. The Personal Meaning Map would pretty accurately track the changes that each individual went through as a result of the experience they were participating in, rather than track them against some predetermined end point. As a former Montessorian, where the mantra is “follow the child”, this ability to see where each youth started and ended in such an individualized way fit perfectly with my beliefs about respecting each learner and where they might happen to be on their learning journey.

Then, this tool, which can look deceptively simple, can be analyzed along a number of dimensions- extent, breadth, depth, emotional intensity, and mastery. For someone vested in a mixed-methods study, this ability to have some measurable, quantitative data was a boon! Further, I supplemented these dimensions by examining changes in use of personal pronouns by the youth, and this tool was a perfect artifact to gather that data also.

You never know when inspiration will hit. As Deb and I passed the time during our car rides, really just filling the time, of course talk about our research ideas would come up- as it was consuming a lot of our lives. But, if I had not been “stuck” in the car for hours, talking to my intelligent and industrious friend, I might not have learned as much about this interesting tool, and my research would have been the weaker without it….. Serendipity comes in all sorts of interesting moments!