Friday, July 22, 2016

BURECS and the Subtle Art of Museum Education


BURECS and the Subtle Art of Museum Education


by Morgan O'Hanlon


museum room.JPG

An exhibit highlighting New England's forests at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.


bones.JPG
Skeletons in the Great Mammal Hall in the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

The roof of a large, red-bricked building pokes out front the top of a thick canopy only a few blocks away from famous Harvard Yard. Sunlight filters down through gaps in the leaves, glittering on the distinguished exterior. Students, teachers and other curious individuals file through the enormous front doors. Catherine Pereira, a summer intern here at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, met me outside and led me up into the museum. As this was my first time in the museum, I was immediately filled with awe when I lay my eyes upon the vast collection on display. The collection of stuffed mammals and birds and one room catch my attention with their glistening, glass eyes. In another room, display cases of artfully arranged, jaw-droppingly beautiful, jewel-colored insects. Within each room, every display told a different story. Each room had its own theme--one with skeletons and taxidermy of a vast collection of mammals and birds, another room showcased the incredible biodiversity of islands. Through each room I visited, I would stop to learn more whenever something caught my eye, taking a closer look and reading the description on succinctly written labels. I looked around and noticed other patrons doing the same, taking in information at their own speed.



Word map created by Catherine Pereira as part of her project to

survey patrons about their knowledge of Microbes, the subject

of an upcoming exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.


When I asked Pereira about how museums design their exhibits to create this experience, Pereira, a BURECS student majoring in biology education, explained a few of the projects she’s been working on. Currently, she’s surveying museum patrons in order to help the director of exhibitions create a new exhibit. This, she said, is part of a plan to gauge patron understanding of microbes so the exhibit staff has a better understanding of the public’s knowledge base. “The job of a teacher is to be able to explain concepts in an understandable, yet accurate way,” Pereira said. In the case of the microbes exhibition, Pereira discovered that patrons first think about microbes as small and dangerous causes of disease--a misconception. She said that museums are most effective at teaching when they consider these preconceptions and address them appropriately in the exhibition.


“[Teachers] also have to be able to re-explain concepts in different ways for students who don’t understand it the first time around,” she said. Unlike the classroom, museums are well-equipped to present concepts in many different ways. According to her, people can better learn when museums are designed in a way that allows patrons to be self-guided, thus creating an individualized learning experience. Pereira explained to me that this was the beauty of informal education, “visitors want to learn,” she said, “the job of an exhibit developer is to help visitors get what they want, but not force them to learn about anything they don’t want to learn.”


In order to promote this freeform learning inherent to the museum experience, a lot of thought goes into planning the exhibits so that the information is presented in a manner that doesn’t overwhelm museum visitors. “We want to allow people to make choices about their learning experience,” said Janis Sacco, the Director of Exhibitions for the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. In order to do this, she said, “you want to make sure that your message is apparent in every single thing that you look at… it’s not just about content presentation, it’s also about mood presentation.”


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View from the second floor of the Great Mammal Hall in the Harvard
Museum of Natural History. The skeleton of a whale hangs from
the ceiling over the remains of giraffes, bears, and other mammals.
Throughout the museum, this philosophy is evident. In an exhibit showcasing the biodiversity of New England's forests, I picked up a handout titled “Look, Listen, Touch,” which explained the features of the room to engage the senses of visitors through the use of audio from the woodlands, three dimensional artifacts and interactive digital kiosks. The aim is to draw a visitor in by making them feel as if they’re actually out in the wilderness while subtly presenting them with further information about their experience.


Sacco’s ultimate goal is to inspire museum visitors to discuss what they learn in the exhibits, which the museum considers to be the highest level of engagement. “When we engage in conversation, we learn the most,” she said, “if we’ve gotten them to that point, that’s the pinnacle of what they can get out of the museum experience."

When it comes to science education in the classroom, Pereira thinks that teachers could help their students by utilizing some of the methods used by exhibit developers. “Working here has given me a whole new perspective on how to teach,” she said, “if I could get students in a science classroom to feel not like they’re learning, but just to feel like they’re having fun talking about or climate, plants, or whatever the unit is at the time, that would be the ultimate goal.”

Friday, June 17, 2016

BU's High-tech Interns

Ricardo Ballesteros and Alex Theodosopoulos work on creating animations on the large screens of the BURECS media lab.
Photo by M. O'Hanlon

BU's High-tech Interns  


The stark white walls of the BURECS media lab are covered in monitorseverywhere you look, a reflection is staring back at you from the black screens. At times, they are decorated with ultra high-resolution panoramic images of Antarcticas dry valleys. Most daysand at curious times of the nightthis is where one can catch a sandy-haired, hippie-looking, vegetarian named Keith Heyward, who works as the BURECS media guru. This summer, hes hosting four of the programs students.

These students are at home inside this futuristic control center. A different gadget lies on each tablean Oculus Rift here, a drone used for aerial photography there. Despite the rooms imposing digital capacity, the students seem laid back and comfortable, a demeanor they seem to have adopted from the man in charge.

Right now, the interns are editing and adding visual aids to their TedTalks”—videos that were created by the BURECS students last fall. These 2-3 minute presentations cover short explanations of environmental topics ranging from ocean currents to solar effects on Earths climate. According to the interns, the process of creating the animations for these videos is slow because of all the minuscule details. Two of the interns working on the video, Danielle Letsche and Praveen Menon, have a five-minute conversation about the exact timing of the animation of rain falling from a cloud. In another corner of the room, Ricardo Ballesteros drags a window from a computer monitor onto a digital drawing pad while Alex Theodosopoulos tells him which of the many Illustrator tools to use.

Animation of the conveyor belt theory taken from 
Praveen Menon's video on ocean currents. 
Although Heyward initially guided them, the students took over the learning process after the first week and are now mostly self-guided. Theyve learned how to use all the software in Adobe Creative Cloud and are now easily moving between Photoshop, After Effects and other programs, competently creating animations of the scientific processes the students talked about in their videos. Concepts like the one Praveen describes in his video would be very difficult to visualize without animations, said Letsche of the usefulness of their work. In that particular video, red and blue animated arrows have been drawn on a picture of the globe in order to demonstrate the circulation of hot and cold waters across the oceans. According to the interns, visuals such as this facilitate comprehension for an audience lacking a scientific background and help to promote engagement throughout the two to three minute videos. If the videos are short and concise with lots of visuals, then they can be a really useful tool, said Theodosopoulos. The faster that we can get the point across, the more useful the videos will be to educate a general audience. Beyond educating the public about scientific phenomena, science communications tools such as these can be used to facilitate the process of scientific research. The students are excited to learn about several new technologies Heyward has been experimenting with in recent months.

Praveen Menon and Alex Theodosopoulos 
discuss the number of photographs of the rock 
that they need to take from different angles. 
Photo by M. O'Hanlon
At the moment, Heyward is preparing to photograph rocks from Antarctica in order to create high-resolution 3D models. These rocks were gathered from dozens of field missions to the Antarctic Dry Valleys. Here at BU, they are stored along with ancient Antarctic ice and volcanic ash in the basement of BUs College of Arts and Sciences in a large room known as Little Antarctica. Currently, the lack of a photographic organization system makes it difficult to locate these rock samples within the rooms labyrinthine shelving system. I want create a digital database for research use, said Heyward of this plan to photograph and catalog the rocks. Once complete, each 3D model would include a spreadsheet of its specific characteristics information like the date it was collected, an estimate of its age, mineral composition, and the GPS location from which it was collected.

In addition to creating animations, Heyward has other big plans for his interns this summer that include updating his website, buriedice.com, which hosts a collection of panoramic images taken in Antarctica. Heyward says that he intends to add more text to his site to make it tour-like. Although it features stunning panoramic images of the Antarctic Dry Valleys, he says it lacks the content to make sense of the images it features. Eventually, Heyward and his interns will also experiment with drones to capture images for more extensive panoramas to be featured on this website. He hopes to create a high-resolution, Google Earth-type of experience where a user can zoom in on a specific rock to examine it. Heyward thinks that this method has the potential to be used as an alternative to hiking around the vast continent of Antarctica to collect data.

The information provided by these 3D images and panoramas would be of use scientists attempting to replicate experiments done in the BURECS lab. In general, scientists methods arent well-documented, Heyward said, this has been a recent issue in the news.As a program that stresses the unity in science between research, education, and communication, BURECS has made it a goal to find solutions to problems such as this. This issue, which is becoming known as the Replication Crisis has gained recent attention in the media as a problem across all scientific fields. More than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist's experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments, said writer and editor, Monya Baker, for Nature Magazine in a recent story featured their website. Although less than 31% [of scientists] think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, the story reports, this issue still highlights the lack of effective communication between scientists in their respective fields.

Although Heywards interns are just beginning to dip their toes into the waters of scientific media, they are well aware that the work done in BURECS has the potential to come up with innovative strategies for problem solving. As they begin work using communication technologies to aid in the education and documentation of science, they will be breaking ground in making science not only accessible, but attractive to mainstream audiences.

-Morgan O'Hanlon

video
This time-lapse video record by Ricardo Ballesteros displays 
the intricate set-up process for 3D modeling. 




Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher, Part 4

Thriving, Moving, and Leaving 

Although long overdue, I have finally finished my blog about my trip to Antarctica. It’s impossible to accurately describe the incredible things that I experienced and the powerful lessons that I learned in the world’s coldest, highest, driest, and windiest desert, so I have instead opted to provide a day-by-day synopsis of my expedition with Professor David Marchant and graduate student Andrew Christ.

In the future I will write more about particular experiences, but for now, here is the 4th and final entry in a 4 part “Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher” series.


Friday, March 25, 2016

A Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher, Part 3

The Intense Life in Tents 

Although long overdue, I have finally finished my blog about my trip to Antarctica. It’s impossible to accurately describe the incredible things that I experienced and the powerful lessons that I learned in the world’s coldest, highest, driest, and windiest desert, so I have instead opted to provide a day-by-day synopsis of my expedition with Professor David Marchant and graduate student Andrew Christ.

In the future I will write more about particular experiences, but for now, here is the third entry in a 4 part “Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher” series.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher, Part 2

Entering the Field 

Although long overdue, I have finally finished my blog about my trip to Antarctica. It’s impossible to accurately describe the incredible things that I experienced and the powerful lessons that I learned in the world’s coldest, highest, driest, and windiest desert, so I have instead opted to provide a day-by-day synopsis of my expedition with Professor David Marchant and graduate student Andrew Christ.

In the future I will write more about particular experiences, but for now, here is part 2 of a 4 part “Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher” series.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher, Part 1

Preparations
Although long overdue, I have finally finished my blog about my trip to Antarctica. It’s impossible to accurately describe the incredible things that I experienced and the powerful lessons that I learned in the world’s coldest, highest, driest, and windiest desert, so I have instead opted to provide a day-by-day synopsis of my expedition with Professor David Marchant and graduate student Andrew Christ.
In the future I will write more about particular experiences, but for now, here is the first entry in a 4 part “Month in the Life of an Antarctic Researcher” series.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A DIFFERENT VISTA: 
PERSPECTIVE FROM A BURECS AMBASSADOR MOM

A year ago, I would not have been able to point out Antarctica on the map.

All I knew was that it was a cold place.

When my daughter Natalie told me she might have the opportunity to do climate change research there, I thought, wow. Cool opportunity. Great experience. It will look good on her resume.

And, maybe, I could even go visit her while she was there.

I did a little Internet research. Did I have enough frequent flyer miles to go visit her for a week? I couldn’t seem to find direct flights to Antarctica. I dug a little deeper. There are no hotels in Antarctica.

Yes, I was clueless.  This was not her mother’s study abroad semester.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Antarctic Reflections

A frozen pond on Mount Discovery
Well, the Antarctic adventure is over - and what an adventure it was! I've had some time to settle in, and reflect on my experiences. It's crazy to think that two months ago I was at the bottom of the world hiking the wild beauty of Antarctica. It feels like my time there came and went like a whirlwind. Yet, in that short period of time I learned so much. Being in that environment allowed me to witness so many talented professionals work, especially our fearless leader Drew who's research we helped conduct. After working on this project, I feel confident that I have grown in my abilities to conduct scientific research. But beyond that, I feel confident that I have grown as a person. Between surviving 3 day snowstorms in nothing but a tent and hauling boxes of rocks on and off the flying death traps that are helicopters... I realized that with a little hard work and some awesome companions, I can survive anything.