Picture a touch tank in a museum or an aquarium. The creatures living within it – a sea star, say, a spiky sea urchin, or a sea cucumber moving slowly across the tank’s sandy bottom– are probably pretty foreign compared to what most families see on a day-to-day basis. It’s the creatures’ foreignness that draws people in initially, the chance to come into contact with the unknown. It’s the squish and ick factor that keeps them engaged, and ultimately leads people to ask other questions, like “How does it eat? How does it move?”
According to Shawn Rowe, who specializes in these experiences, they’re the kinds of questions a biologist might ask. And whether or not they realize it, Rowe says, the people who have participated in the touch tank exhibit have just educated themselves, albeit far from the setting of a traditional classroom.
“People are learning how to think and observe like field scientists,” Rowe says. “And that’s really exciting. That’s something no one has ever documented before.”
Rowe’s job as an assistant professor of science education in Oregon State’s College of Education and learning specialist involves such documentation. He works with OSU and Oregon Sea Grant at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center developing new exhibits and programs for the center, as well as researching those exhibits with public audiences.
“We study how people learn when they come to a museum to have fun, to be with their family,” says Rowe. “How do they learn ocean sciences in particular, but science in general? What can that tell us about teaching and learning science across the life span?”
This is the larger question asked by OSU’s free choice learning program, of which Rowe is a part. The unique program focuses on how people learn over the course of their lives, and how that learning can be improved upon.
“Not surprisingly, free choice learning is the kind of learning that happens across most of our lives,” says Rowe. “We spend anywhere from 3 to 15 percent of our lives in formal schooling situations. Most of what we learn, especially about science and about the ocean, happens outside of those contexts.”
And yet, learning outside the classroom is not very well studied, says Rowe. While learning within the classroom has been extensively researched, social scientists are just starting to understand how people learn – from visiting a museum, to using the internet, talking to their friends or joining a club or hobby group. The idea is that we are all lifelong learners, and understanding how that works in everyday situations can lead to benefits for all.
For instance, if a family can turn anything into a game, they can learn from it, according to Rowe. Rowe and his colleagues at the Hatfield Marine Science Center have changed some exhibits to make them more competitive after learning that when one family member is pitted against another, or two groups are competing, the learning level ramps up.
Part of Rowe’s job is to coach graduate students to make similar observations. To date, he has helped graduate nearly 15 students in free choice learning projects, all of which involve communicating some basic ocean science content. “The advising is one of the most exciting parts of my job,” he says. “I’m pleased to be part of the great faculty here who are building a kind of cadre of professionals around the country who are doing this kind of work in museums, in universities and at the intersections of museums and universities. That’s where this graduate program comes in.”
Currently, Rowe is working on a $2.6 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to build three exhibits at Hatfield that collect data automatically, and then customize how they deliver information to the visitor. An example is an exhibit on climate change beliefs that shapes how it delivers content to visitors depending on how they answer questions about the phenomenon.
“It’s a build-your-own adventure with an exhibit,” Rowe says. According to Rowe, the data these exhibits collect go into a larger database that enables researchers to answer questions about visitors' beliefs and knowledge, and how those might change depending on how information is delivered. With an interactive and customized exhibit, Rowe and his colleagues can learn more about exhibits that prompt people to talk to each other, or that just give them information when they’re alone.
The information will help researchers to collect data from behind the scenes. It will make it possible for people to have data delivered to them whether they’re in Newport or Tokyo. Additionally, the grant will allow 12 visiting scholars over the next 5 years to work at Hatfield, and learn how to use the interactive exhibits and design research projects.
“It’s our new direction, and it’s an exciting development,” says Rowe. “It can raise the bar of our facility as a national laboratory on research in free choice learning.”