Cyberlab: New Tools To “Ignite” Research And Evaluation

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October 12th, 2015

The Cyberlaboratory – Exploring Customization and Continuity, or Cyberlab (part of National Science Foundation project #1114741), installed a suite of observation tools in the existing infrastructure of the Visitors Center at Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) in Newport, Oregon to unobtrusively observe visitors. The audio and video recording tools document visitor behaviors in order to understand how people learn, which can then be used to improve exhibit and program design.

The Cyberlab project components are to: (1) deploy automated evaluation tools, (2) make data collected through the technology available to a wider research community and engage ISE professionals in this research, and (3) address questions of interest to the larger ISE field concerning customization of content and experiences at exhibits. For the first component we created an automated system to collect large amounts of data on visitor activity for both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Second, we plan to make these data available for researchers worldwide, similar to the way an astronomical observatory allows remote and shared access to a large community of users. Third, we explore the value of customizing content at exhibits for individual user learning experiences and tracing continuity across learning settings. The theoretical framework of Cyberlab is intentionally neutral to accommodate the variety of social science and learning theory research that could apply to the phenomena observed, making it more useful to the broad ISE community.

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Affiliated with Oregon State University and Oregon Sea Grant, the Visitors Center at HMSC consists of live animal displays, hands-on exhibits, and interactive technology, all of which serve as a way to communicate scientific research, concepts, and information. Approximately 150,000 people visit the site annually. The small Visitors Center is a fitting location to closely observe, film and record visitors, and the Cyberlab project provides an opportunity to develop new ways of thinking about and addressing issues such as ethical and privacy concerns that may arise from filming visitors in a public place. A partnership with the Oregon State University Institutional Review Board has generated an appropriate research protocol that informs visitors of the purpose of the recordings and informs them of the studies taking place in the galleries. Multiple signs placed on exhibits and cameras inform visitors they are being observed for a study. By entering into and remaining in the galleries, visitors consent to being filmed. If visitors have questions or concerns, they are welcome to talk to any staff or volunteer about how data are collected and used. For youth visiting on school field trips, HMSC provides parents with consent forms that provide information about the filming and recording happening in the exhibit spaces.

The design of a non-invasive system for the collection of linked video, audio, and other data comes from a combination of off-the-shelf surveillance and facial recognition cameras, coupled with audio recording and computer use tracking software. This system provides access to uninterrupted visitor interactions in key locations. Researchers and evaluators can track visitor movements, calculate dwell time at exhibits, and capture social interactions without being physically located in the Visitor Center. The power of the design and this type of data collection is that we can study the visitor experience on multiple levels without interfering with their natural behavior.

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For decades museum researchers and evaluators have been physically present with a clipboard and stopwatch to do visitor timing and tracking (see the work of Allen, Bitgood, Borun, Falk & Dierking, and Hein, for example). With the advances of surveillance technology, this process can be automated to support data collection. For example, researchers can review archived recordings and extract video for analysis, and use the recordings to conduct research on the learning experiences of specific audiences. In the HMSC Visitor Center gallery, up to 35 cameras installed around exhibit hotspots provide a variety of views, and microphones mounted in several locations record conversations. The facial recognition cameras installed in the exhibits track visitor movements. As visitors walk between exhibits, the cameras recognize the human face based on biometric data points, or specific pixel distances between the eyes, nose, and mouth, and software can process images from multiple camera streams to track the same visitor in front of different exhibits. The data can also be used to re-create the path that visitors took through the gallery spaces. Working with automated systems requires a robust infrastructure, including strong network bandwidth, server capacity, and database design and management. While the technology has potential, the human researcher provides important checks, such as making sure the facial recognition system is appropriately identifying markers on a human face.

At Cyberlab several projects have been designed and conducted over the past two years using the audio and video recording infrastructure developed by the project. For instance, parent and child interactions with a multi-touch table exhibit were investigated as part of graduate students’ work. Data from conversations and physical behaviors between adults and children were analyzed and coded against a rubric to assess engagement levels within the family group. Researchers have also explored visitor interpretation of visualized data on flat surface exhibits versus on three-dimensional spheres, and emotional responses by visitors with live animal exhibits. Organizations, such as UNAVCO, a geoscience research and education consortium, have worked with Cyberlab staff to evaluate and improve exhibit designs that communicate earth science.

This summer, Cyberlab hosted its first “Ignite” event to introduce ISE researchers to our tools to see if any changes in methods would be needed, and to propose creative research questions ( Six researchers divided into pairs participated in multiple challenges to observe visitors while making use of the available tools, archival data, space, and constraints. In one challenge, two researchers observed visitors at the tsunami exhibit where visitors are provided with Legos to build structures to withstand the impact of a simulated wave in a tank. As an experiment, the researchers dismantled Lego structures built by each visitor group before a new group approached the exhibit. By comparing these real time interactions with recorded data in which visitors were always working with the results of a previous interaction, researchers observed that visitors who approached completely disassembled Lego pieces tended to build more complex structures than ones who worked with structures and partial structures left by a previous visitor group. In a group discussion that followed, all six researchers discussed the potential implications of this finding for the design and management of making and tinkering spaces, where the “initial conditions” of the space and materials influence how visitors think about and decide what to do.

Collaborations with other institutions and organizations as satellite labs are anticipated to continue. The Cyberlab has the capacity to host researchers and evaluators while they design, implement, and conduct their studies. A range of potential projects now exists, including visitor interactions and engagement with live animals, exhibit design and iteration testing, and investigation of learning strategies in informal STEM. The Cyberlab will be hosting future Ignite events where interested researchers and evaluators can participate in project challenges and collect data via the observation technology while building capacity for use in other programs.