TIDESS Museum Learning Project Update: PufferSphere Prototype Development

The TIDESS Team has been investigating the natural and intuitive ways users interact with spherical displays by continuing to prototype on the PufferSphere. In my understanding as a new member of the team, the TIDESS project primarily aims to investigate ways in which children and adults interact with large touchscreen interfaces, such as spherical displays, to help us design interactive touchscreen exhibits for public science learning. More specifically, the project focusses on studying new types of touch interactions, or gestures, that allow users to manipulate and explore content displayed on the sphere.

To allow us to study how users interact with the PufferSphere and investigate natural user gestures, our team is in the process of developing a PufferSphere prototype to support future studies.  I have been primarily responsible for developing this prototype while part of this project this summer. In development of the prototype, I have faced issues with distortion of content shown on the sphere or more generally displaying 2D images and videos on a three-dimensional space. A simple solution that I have found is to limit videos and images to small windows on the sphere’s surface to decrease the effect of the distortion. I also learned that, when prototyping, especially on a new platform such as the PufferSphere, it is good practice to start your program with basic concepts and slowly add components. I found this idea to be helpful because, frequently, objects appear differently on the sphere than the desired outcome, and this allows for quick correction of any errors while preserving the already working components.

Currently, I have been attempting to add elements to the prototype that make it more visually appealing and provide motivation for participants to complete the study (e.g., “gamification” elements as popularized in Brewer et al, IDC 2013). I have also been working on logging touch data for the prototype. The PufferSphere already records touch information such as the start and end of a touch, as well as the longitude and latitude of the touch on the sphere. We want to record these pieces of data, with the time they occurred, in a CSV file to obtain the speed of a swipe/drag gesture or the length of time that a touch lasted. Logging touch data allows us to calculate this information after the study to do analysis across users. Other improvements to the prototype will be made after running pilot studies.

As an student from the IMHCI REU Program in the INIT at University of Florida, I have had many learning opportunities this summer. First and foremost, I have learned to be more proficient in task management. This was a necessity in my first research experience as I quickly saw that some of my assigned tasks had priority over others and deadlines, while at other times, I had independent/free time to read research papers relevant to the project. In the beginning of the summer, I was also timid to collaborate with others frequently. Now, I find it very casual to ask peers and mentors questions and even coproduce works for a multitude of assignments.  I am currently a third-year student at Elon University majoring in Computer Science (BS) and Mathematics (BS) with a minor in Physics. As the summer continues, I look forward to seeing how children will interact with the sphere during our study sessions.



  1. Brewer, R., Anthony, L., Brown, Q., Irwin, G., Nias, J., and Tate, B. Using gamification to motivate children to complete empirical studies in lab environments. Proc. IDC’2013, ACM Press (2013), 388–391.


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Back in the swing for fall

Over the summer, there were several changes to our TIDESS project team. We said goodbye to Carrie, who won a prestigious award to help her finish her dissertation (defense scheduled for October 25!), and Peter, who graduated. We welcomed two REU students, Ian and Saylie, and had temporary help from grad students Shae, and now Sarah. We even said goodbye to an advisory board member, Betty Dunckel, who retired from a long career at FLMNH, and welcomed Julia Plummer from Penn State in her place, who we met at NARST. Whew!

It was a busy one, though, as we resubmitted a paper to a conference, the first time we’ve had a revise-and-resubmit process for computer science conferences. We also submitted our first paper on the education side of things for International Journal of Science Education, Part B. This was based in large part on the work we presented at NARST. We also submitted as part of a symposium of posters on scientific practices in informal science education settings for NARST 2019. We submitted our second NSF report, and we ran a gesture elicitation study, all while continuing to develop the software and exhibit for the sphere.

Now that fall semester has started (it’s already week 4!), our smaller team heading into our third year (the no-cost extension year of the project) will be focusing on wrapping up what we can of these studies and planning for future work. Hannah and I are really digging into the design of our next embodiment study, with Carrie’s help as she is available. We are hoping to get to run an in-museum study this spring or next summer, but with Betty’s departure from the museum, things there have been in flux in terms of personnel. So as always, stay tuned!

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Pages from 2018_NARST_Clickable_Conference_Program

Recently, two TIDESS project members (Principal Investigator Katie Stofer and I) had the opportunity to attend and co-present our work at the NARST Annual International Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. In general, conferences provide a great opportunity to share what you’re working on and to get valuable feedback, to network with colleagues and identify opportunity for future collaborations, and to learn about associated work.

NARST describes themselves as “A Worldwide Organization for Improving Science Teaching and Learning Through Research”. This particular conference brings together educators and researchers who work on science learning from many different angles. The conference content is arranged by different “strands” and had 15 of these, including: History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science; College Science Teaching and Learning; Cultural, Social, and Gender Issues; and many others. Our presentation was within Strand 6: Science Learning Within Informal Contexts. “Informal Learning” is a phrase researchers and facilitators often use to describe education and learning experiences that take place outside of formal structured contexts like classrooms. Other terminology, such as “free-choice learning”, can also be used to describe the process (you can read Katie’s paper detailing some of the nuances of this terminology here). Our work fits within this topic due to our focus on science museums.

For this particular presentation, we focused on the science content and science practices we saw discussed by participants within the TIDESS tabletop Before giving this presentation, we developed and submitted a five-page abstract that summarized some of the key ideas we would be presenting. This abstract was then peer-reviewed before we were accepted into the conference. I reference the process briefly in my post here. Both the process of developing the extended abstract and putting together the presentation has put us well on our way to writing up our results for future publication in an education journal. Another one of our current team members, Hannah, describes some of her experience with expanding the results into a more formal paper in her recent post.

We also were able to catch multiple exciting presentations in our own strand and others, such as Environmental Education and Educational Technology, incorporating ideas that might be of interest within the TIDESS project. For example, several other presenters were also exploring the concept of embodiment within their own research.  It was helpful to identify people within our specific research community working on the topic and to see how they are navigating the role of embodied cognition in a variety of different contexts.

Keep an eye on the blog as we will have upcoming posts detailing how our research is progressing and will undoubtedly have more news about developments from the human-computer interaction part of our team!


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Getting my Feet Wet

The Fall semester got off to a quick start with the TIDESS project! New to the project, it was exciting getting up to speed. To introduce myself, I am a junior undergraduate student majoring in Political Science and Sociology. Just like Carrie, I might seem like an unusual fit for the TIDESS project, but with my studies in sociology, I am excited to apply my knowledge of how people engage and interact with their environments. I am interested to see how users learn and make meaning of the world around them by using data visualizations, and how they make connections to our planet by referring to their own experiences.

I entered the project in the heat of the team finishing a peer-reviewed conference paper submission. For the paper, I had the opportunity to work on the background section on embodied cognition, a theory we are using to ground some of our interpretations, which was a bit of a challenge. The education team and I spent a lot of time discussing what embodied cognition means to us and how users used embodied cognition while interacting with the tabletop. To find evidence of embodied cognition in the tabletop study, I had my first attempt at coding qualitative data. In a past research project I worked on, I practiced the fundamentals of coding, but it was an informal practice. With the TIDESS project, I put this idea to work formally. To find examples of embodied cognition, the education team studied transcripts from the study in order to pull examples of conceptual metaphors—a crucial part to identifying embodied cognition. It was a challenge at first to agree on what we thought were strong examples of embodied cognition, but once we narrowed it down to the two most apparent metaphors, we were able to define embodied cognition more clearly. Once we came to agreement, our second round of coding was much easier, and our team pulled strong examples for the paper.

It was a great learning experience to see how the conference paper was formed. Even though I have read various research papers before working on this project, I never knew how research papers were structured. I was also surprised at how much editing goes into formal research papers. After the first conference proposal, I have shifted my attention to writing a research paper for the NARST conference. The NARST conference is specifically for work on science education research. So far, I have had the opportunity to expand on our approved abstract and take my first couple attempts at writing the paper.

Looking forward to this spring semester, I am eager to get involved with the focus groups for our sphere study and possibly start a project of my own. With the upcoming focus group results, we will continue our research on museum exhibits while incorporating a physical model, the sphere, into our study. Since this study is focused on what people know or want to know about museum exhibits and oceans, I want to see how people conceptualize our global ocean systems without the use of an exhibit. Some brainstorming ideas include having participants draw a map of our oceans or color a map to portray their perceptions of ocean temperature. Clearly, a lot of research and planning still needs to be done to this study. Overall, I believe having an understanding about how people view our ocean systems can help us learn what would be effective in an interactive ocean museum exhibit.

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One Way We Learn: Embodied Cognition

In a previous post, we mentioned that the TIDESS project had begun data analysis on our study to describe how people learn from interactive data visualizations. One of the underlying theories that we draw on to inform this work is the theory of embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is the idea that our body shapes our mind, or even performs some of the same meaning-making processes as our brain does. In other words, our body interacts with the environment, and we learn from that experience. Well, what does that mean exactly? In his paper, Embodiment and embodied design, Dr. Dor Abrahamson gives a great example:

File:A dog plays on a seesaw with children in Scotland,.jpg

Credit: William Reid, National Geographic

Imagine a child standing, as in the picture above, at the center of a seesaw. When this child shifts his weight from one side to another, the seesaw tips toward the side with more weight. Through embodied cognition, the child is learning about an idea of balance. He is physically experiencing that adding more weight to one side of the seesaw causes that side to be heavier than the other and thus move downward.

Although the example above involves learning from a physical activity, embodied cognition can also be involved for learning in other modalities, such as language. One key figure in the development of embodied cognition was George Lakoff, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He discusses in his book, Metaphors We Live By, that language is shaped from our body as well as shaped from our mind. For example, when we think of being “happy” or “sad”, we can associate those two emotions with the words “up” and “down”, respectively. That’s why we hear some people say, “Cheer up, mate” or “I’m feeling a little down today”. This association of up with happy and down with sadness is known as a conceptual metaphor. These metaphors shape our perception of our feelings, and thus we learn to use certain words associated with physical, bodily experiences to describe our emotions and experiences.

Within the context of learning, there are numerous studies that demonstrate the power of embodied cognition. By engaging learners through physical demonstrations and exercises, rather than stating information as in a lecture or text, learners are able to learn the concepts better. Embodied cognition also goes hand in hand with learning through visualizations. For instance, in our recent study, our interface displayed visualizations of Earth’s ocean temperatures. We then had our pilot participants engage with this interface. Our pilot participants used their perceptions from their senses and acted through their gestures in ways that could aid learning. It is these tasks that we hope to understand in our study.

Both our tabletop and sphere provide us the interactive technology for our participants to engage with and learn about the Earth’s oceans. As a senior in Biology at the University of Florida who joined the project this past summer, I’m fascinated to see if participants learn more about geoscience through embodied cognition by using their senses and performing actions on our tabletop and sphere.

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Preparing for Prototyping on the PufferSphere

After successfully assembling the Pufferfish spherical display (PufferSphere) and getting the software up and running, we started to work towards our goal of transitioning our existing tabletop prototype onto the PufferSphere. Our main goal is to build a touch and gesture-interactive prototype to promote science learning through data visualization. We will be exploring how users interact with the prototype on the PufferSphere to understand what gestures feel more natural to them in order to design better interactive exhibits.

To start the development process, the TIDESS development team had a meeting with our collaborators at Pufferfish Ltd . During the meeting we shared a demonstration of our current (tabletop) prototype. Following the demonstration, Pufferfish gave an overview of the PufferSphere system including what gestures it currently supports and how to create interactive applications for the PufferSphere, using PufferPrime software development kit. To begin prototyping, we built our first PufferSphere application that displayed just a video capture of our existing tabletop  prototype visuals on the PufferSphere in the right aspect ratio (2:1) (Figure 1). This application helped us to understand better how well our existing prototype (which was designed originally for a flat-screen tabletop display) fits on the PufferSphere and what modifications are required in our existing OpenExhibits prototype to get it to work on the PufferSphere. We also discussed tweaking the interface aesthetics such as color, font style, and font size, to suit better the spherical form factor.


Figure 1: Tabletop prototype video capture on the PufferSphere

The over-arching goal of our project is to investigate new types of touch interactions (gestures) that support exploration of the content displayed on the sphere. To facilitate our investigation, we need the sphere software to recognize and log users’ gestures. Currently, the default behavior of the PufferSphere is only to interpret the tap gesture and it does not log every single touch that is detected. Also, any kind of dragging or swiping gestures on the sphere are interpreted only as rotation of the whole sphere, and for our purposes, we need the sphere to recognize and respond to more complex gestures (such as long-tap, drag of a finger, drag of two fingers and so on). To support these gestures, Pufferfish built a Touch Forwarding application programming interface (API) for us. This API level access gives us access to touch events such as touch position in terms of latitude and longitude (location on the sphere) and touch velocity and will eventually help us define our own gesture library and try different gestures in the prototype to better understand what feels natural to users. We are in the process of trying out this new API feature. 

I am a 2nd year Ph.D. student in the Human-Centered Computing Ph.D. program at the University of Florida. I am thoroughly enjoying working on the PufferSphere and developing new applications for the interface. I am excited to continue learning about the nuances of designing applications for spherical displays and looking forward to using the sphere for my dissertation research.

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Learning The Ropes

As our blog readers know, the TIDESS team has been hard at work on our data analysis, writing, and development! However, I’m taking a step back from our posts detailing parts of the research process instead to write from the perspective of what it’s like to join a scientific project as a new team member.

First, an introduction. I am currently an Interdisciplinary Ecology PhD candidate at the University of Florida. The focus for my own research is the concept of oyster-provided ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are the benefits we derive from natural resources that can be tied to human wellbeing. Oysters contribute many invaluable environmental functions including protecting shorelines from erosion and storm battering, providing habitat for many small macroinverterbrates and fish, and filtering water, leading to positive impacts on water quality. You can read more about the details of my work on my personal blog at https://themeanderingscientist.com/category/oyster/.

While I might seem like an unusual fit for the TIDESS project, I also have a background and interest in science education and outreach. Another aspect of TIDESS that I find interesting is some of the methods are similar to the ones I’ll be employing in my current study of how oystermen and fishermen use and think about oyster reefs. I am conducting one-on-one interviews that I will ultimately use qualitative content analysis to understand. As Jeremy and Alice talked about in their previous TIDESS posts, this method of assessment involves categorizing what people say during a study based on themes that either derive from previous literature or are developed during the research process.

However, when joining a project partway through its progression, there’s a certain amount of catching up one has to do. The team has recently been working through data analysis for the tabletop study. We concurrently submitted abstracts and papers to two different upcoming conferences. One has been accepted to the 2018 NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching) conference , while the other is in review for a computer science conference. Publishing and presenting at these conferences will allow us to discuss the results of the current study through slightly different lenses.

I have so far assisted with the writing and editing process for the conference papers/proposals. One of the challenges is the style of writing and the submission process for both venues we submitted to are somewhat different from the type of ecology-based conferences I typically attend and at which I present. I also have to learn about new concepts and ideas that form the foundation for our current TIDESS research. This includes learning about the fundamental research that has set the stage for this work. An interesting aspect of the entire process is seeing the way two disciplines – science education and human computer interaction – are being tapped into through this project to create more effective solutions for designing and presenting data visualizations for learning in informal settings.

Luckily, as a graduate student I’ve cultivated many of the skills needed to diminish the learning curve. I look forward to writing about new developments as I become further integrated into the research team.

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