NEWPORT, Ore. - Oregon Sea Grant has received a five-year, $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support the creation of a free-choice learning lab at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. 

The grant is the largest single research award to Oregon Sea Grant in its 40-year history and among the largest ever awarded to a Sea Grant program nationwide, according to program director Stephen Brandt.

Free-choice learning is the study of how people learn across the lifespan and across contexts where they have choice and control over that learning. Most of the learning people do over the course of our lives, including about the ocean and marine sciences, happens in such contexts.

"Studying how people learn is critical to Sea Grant because it can help us to understand how best to communicate with the diverse public audiences who rely on us for research and education related to ocean and aquatic issues," Brandt said.

Oregon Sea Grant and OSU researchers will conduct innovative research at the Hatfield Marine Science Center's Visitor Center, a destination that attracts more than 150,000 visitors a year, and will collaborate with the public to gain a deeper understanding of what and how they learn. The funding will support cyber-learning - the use of networked computing and communications technologies to support learning - and exploit emerging technologies for real-time assessment and evaluations.

Guest scholars from academia, as well as museums, zoos, and aquariums nationwide will conduct research projects within the developing laboratory infrastructure. Projects will utilize state-of-the-art human observation technologies that will be developed and deployed in the center.

"This new NSF award is strong recognition of the HMSC Visitor Center's cutting-edge work," said George Boehlert, director of the OSU center. "The research now being developed will create new advances in delivery of marine science education to people of all ages."

The research project will be led by Shawn Rowe, a faculty member in both Sea Grant and the OSU College of Education.

"This project is a substantial ramp-up and extension of free-choice learning research efforts that began in 2004 and that have been supported by Oregon Sea Grant, NSF, NOAA, and the Oregon Department of Education," said Rowe.

Ten graduate student theses have been developed through that research, and the new NSF project promises significant additional opportunities for graduate students, he said.

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Shawn Rowe, 541-867-0190