Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

The Choice to Learn Science

Jennifer East

Jennifer East

While Jenny East was teaching outdoor school on Washington's Bainbridge Island, she asked young students to draw a picture of a scientist. What she got back was disappointing, but not surprising.

"Mostly they were males in white lab coats with crazy hair, and things were blowing up," she said.

Since then, East has focused on changing prevailing perceptions of science, especially in the marine sciences. A second-year student in Oregon State's Marine Resource Management program, East argues that science isn't confined to people with a Ph.D. and a lab coat. Instead, making inferences about our world can happen anywhere and by anyone, with some of the most rewarding scientific pursuits occurring at our leisure. It's a concept called free-choice learning, which East describes as the kind of learning that is so natural, you lose track of time.

"Nobody is forcing you to do it. It's intrinsic reward," she said. "You're using your leisure time or free time to make a choice as to how you spend your day. Free-choice learning is also site specific, whether at a museum, on a boat, on a hike or wherever."

Working with free-choice learning expert and Associate Professor Shawn Rowe, East is conducting research at the Hatfield Marine Science Center to implement new exhibits to understand how and why visitors discover science during their free time.

"In the past few years, I have become interested in how people learn science, particularly outside of the classroom environment," she said. "For example, people choose to attend aquariums, museums and science centers in their leisure time. My research explores how they make meaning of science information in these settings."

The initial wave

As a child growing up in the Seattle area, East remembers taking trips to the Washington coast with her parents. She would handle sea stars, scour the beach and look at driftwood, often asking, "Can we go where there are tide pools?" These experiences were perhaps more powerful than traditional and more structured learning environments.

Her curiosity of the salty sea stayed with her through adulthood. She earned a degree in biology with a focus on marine science at Western Washington University. She then worked as an environmental consultant and had her eyes set on becoming a marine scientist. But an unexpected stint at Microsoft doing usability studies for IT professionals broadened her scope. She became more aware of human behavior and what makes certain programs or technologies intuitive to use.

Parallel to her time at Microsoft, East volunteered at the Seattle Aquarium as a program naturalist. Here, she saw free-choice learning in action: people who were motivated to spend time at the beach or an aquarium and learn. Visitors often told her she was good at communicating science, even tricky or politically charged subjects like the Gulf Oil Spill.

"Right now, we have a huge issue with getting science information to the public, how they get their information and what they're trusting as their information source," she said. "I realized how important it was to distill complex subjects and help people make sense of them."

East also realized she had amassed a powerful – if not disparate – skillset in marine science, technology and communication. By this time, she was seven years out of her bachelor's degree and ready for a graduate program that complemented her diverse talents. She found that program at Oregon State.

"The Marine Resource Management degree fit exactly what I was looking for," she said. "So much so, that I only applied to OSU."

The human animal

East is combining her experience in marine education and technology as a research assistant in the Cyberlab at Hatfield Marine Science Center, a learning laboratory for visitors. In 2010 and 2011, the National Science Foundation provided funding to the program to study visitor interactions and informal science education using emerging technologies.

East is advancing that effort by observing visitors interacting with a 55-square-inch multi-touch table (think of a giant iPad on legs). The table displays an electromagnetic spectrum, where users can slide different photos along the spectrum and see how the image changes.

"Galleries and museums are jumping on the bandwagon to get one of these," East said. "They've done timing and tracking of these tables, but we still don't know the quality and depth of engagement. Are people just swiping the photos through the electromagnetic spectrum? Or are they making connections to the outside world?"

To address that question, East has been collecting video and audio recordings of users (with obvious signs letting visitors know they will be recorded). She then asks in-person questions about their experience. Much like a wildlife biologist, East said she waits for people to interact with the table before approaching them.

"It's like I'm sitting in the wild and waiting for the animal to come so I can study it. But instead, I'm waiting for the human animal to use and interact with the exhibit," she said.

The video, audio and in-person interviews will allow her to code for different learning behaviors, for example, whether users asked a question while at the table or connected an image to something they had seen before.

"There's a social learning theory that says people don't learn in a vacuum. Communicating and sharing with others creates an imprint on your cognition. So, I'm looking at verbal and physical behaviors that support this theory and indicate learning," she said.

Her data will help other learning laboratories improve exhibit content and understand the efficacy of multi-touch tables. But more importantly, East's research is helping people to see science all around them. One visitor at a time, she is inspiring the inner inquiries of young minds, until one day, she could ask students to draw a scientist, and they may just draw themselves.

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