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!


No really, post a shelfie!

As it is the holiday time of year, this month’s post will be a short bit of fluff, as opposed to the longer bits of fluff I usually write. I am a reader. If it comes in my mailbox, or I pick it up from a newsstand, I will probably read it. This often leads to interesting things coming into my mind and life.

Recently, my older daughter’s university magazine arrived, and being me, I read it. The thing that caught my attention this time was the centerfold bit. They had taken photos of a bookshelf from a variety of professors and wanted you to match the book collection to the academic. I did read the short bios and thought about which books likely matched their interests, but the part that has stuck with me is the way we can represent ourselves, or make assumptions about others, based on their book shelves. I don’t know about you, but I love to look at the books on display in public spaces in other people’s homes, and as a fan of the selfie shot, this is an idea I am a fan of all around.
As I mentioned last month, I have recently relocated. I don’t just hold on to recipes, I also hold on to books. However, moving from a 3,000 square foot house to a two bedroom apartment made me think long and hard about what books I just “had” to have with me for this interim housing. As an academic, I have a collection of books that are relevant to my research interests and had to come along for practical reasons. However, I also insisted on bringing a sampling of the books that helped define me- the books that I might never read again, but I will probably carry around with me for the rest of my life.

So, I will share two photos with you all, my personal shelfie and my academic shelfie, and I hope to inspire many of you to post yours on twitter! If you @FreeChoiceLab us, we will get to see and share this part of our lives. Could be fun! Oh, and happy holidays- whatever you celebrate!

PS- Michelle Mileham posted the original “shelfie” with her cookbook blog last year!

IMG_2330-300x225 IMG_7713-300x225


Designing interactive data visualizations for learning (by Katie Stofer and Lisa Anthony)

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.


Schools out…forever!

The semester is ending, and as I will be graduating the end of next week, it’s finally sinking in that my time in grad school is coming to a close. The final copy of my dissertation was handed in at the end of the last month, and ever since I have been considering what types of publications I would like to work on while transitioning back in the real world.

Deciding on publications is really more tricky than it seems. I’m trying to find opportunities that reflect my approach as both a researcher and an educator. Of course, my choices will be job dependent (a matter I am still diligently working on) due to time and project constraints, however I have been thinking about writing articles that both highlight the theory I generated around docents in science museum settings, and are able to communicate the practical implications for the field. Myself and Michelle are considering an article together that links our two pieces of work (mine on existing docent practice, hers on training methods), and myself and Susan on interpretation in museums. Both will be equally interesting to pursue. I’d particularly like to write something that is useful to informal science education settings, in terms of docent preparation and interpretive strategies in museum, as I am an advocate for promoting the visibility of free choice learning research to those that develop programming in the field. Just like scientist engagement in education and outreach is an important part of science education, as researchers we are also part of a community that should attempt to engage the free choice learning field in educational research. Outreach works both ways.

What’s interesting about this process is trying to work out which journals are also most fruitful to pursue. I was encouraged by both my committee to attempt to publish in the Journal of Interpretation (National Association for Interpretation), but I have also been thinking about Current (National Marine Educators Association), American Educational Research Journal (American Educational Research Association) and Visitor Studies (Visitor Studies Association), but there are a lot more to consider. It’s a little overwhelming, but also exciting. For me, this is where the rubber hits the road – the avenues where the outcomes of my work can become part of the larger free choice learning community.


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.