2008-09-08

A Quick Look Back - My Fulbright Application Personal Statement

As I get begin to get settled both in Oslo and as a Fulbright student, I thought it would be worthwhile to look back on what I was setting out to do a year ago when I applied. I stumbled accross my "personal statement" recently as I was sharing it with another student going through the application process. This is more to remind myself of what I've been thinking, but here it is:

I have recently come to recognize that my life is dominated by the activity of looking for, and acting upon, connections. Whether these connections involve academic classes, school projects, travel, or social relationships, there seems to be a guiding force, leading me towards bringing together these different areas of my life. This point really struck home for me, when I realized that I had designed my master’s thesis project, literally, around this very idea. To demonstrate this connecting force in my life, I would like to briefly describe this project, and how it has pulled across many of my other experiences.

This master’s project was the final task in my Learning, Design, and Technology program, in the School of Education, at Stanford University. The project was based on a learning problem faced by children visiting science museums. Children tend to view museum exhibits as isolated experiences, as “islands” of science phenomena. However, scientists draw on a broad array of experiences, experiments, and data to generate questions, and grand conclusions. The goal of this project was to get children to think like scientists by approaching science museum experiences as though the exhibits are connected and related to each other. My design solution involved digital technology, an interactive map that encouraged children to seek and record connections between different exhibits.

This project, itself, was drawing on my own past experiences as a museum volunteer and employee, as a product design student, as a child very excited about maps, among others. One particular travel experience also seems especially relevant upon reflection. Traveling with a family friend around Iceland a few years ago, the topic of science museums came into conversation (I was currently employed by one in my home state of Florida). In any case, I asked if there were any Icelandic science centers to show off the wealth of local natural phenomena. He responded, rather boldly, “The whole island is a science museum!” He was absolutely correct. In the span of a few days, I had traveled from volcano to glacier to geyser, and traveling from place to place in Iceland had given me time to reflect on the relationships between the experiences. It is also apparent to me now that perhaps the Icelandic people view learning opportunities as being embedded in nature, a perspective quite different than what I’m used to seeing as an American. I wish I could say that this short conversation directly influenced my master’s project, but only reflecting back now do I recognize the connecting experiences that guided my project.

Thus, in many senses, I have been just like the children that I observed and researched in designing my master’s project. I noticed children running from exhibit to exhibit, totally engaged in each place, but seeming to forget about the previous interaction when finding something new. After introducing my design solution, children are encouraged to reflect and approach these exhibits as though they are related. Similarly, the actual process of creating this design project has forced me to reflect, and approach my new experiences as though they are connected. Iceland is most certainly an “island,” but it took the design of my connections exhibit for me to stop treating my experiences there as isolated.

I consider myself to be a designer, and my ambition in life is to be a designer of “learning things” – whether these things be toys, classroom tools, or museum exhibits. I’ve realized that this design process is really about looking for and creating connections, from thing to thing, person to person, and place to place.


--rolf

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