Oregon State University

Free-Choice Learning

Shawn Rowe filming touch tank use, HMSC Visitor Center

Learning about learning, over a lifetime

Free-choice learning is all about deciding what, where, and how we want to learn over the course of our lifetimes. It's the learning that takes place all the time, outside of the classroom, no matter how young or old you are.

Since 2004, Oregon Sea Grant's Free-choice Learning program has been working to understand and support the  marine science learning that happens when people choose to visit science museums, zoos and aquariums in their leisure time, making specific and conscious choices about what they learn.  Today, the program is recognized as uniquely innovative and successful in an ever-widening circle of influence and partners.

Our living laboratory for free-choice learning is OSU's HMSC Visitor Center in Newport. There, a team of scholars, scientists, graduate students and trained volunteers conduct research, education, and professional-development programs - and also create innovative exhibits that interpret marine science and the ocean world for visitors of all ages.

At OSU, graduate academic offerings in free-choice learning are available in three departments  -- Science and Math Education (SMED), Marine Resource Management (MRM), and Environmental Sciences.

Our free-choice learning program is also one of six West Coast partners developing education programming and research opportunities for community college students, faculty, informal science educators and marine education volunteers in Oregon, Washington, California, and Hawaii.


Oregon Sea Grant is working under a five-year, $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a new free-choice learning lab at the Visitor Center. The grant is the largest single research award to Oregon Sea Grant in its 40-year history and among the largest ever made to a Sea Grant program nationwide.

Under the grant, Dr. Shawn Rowe is leading a team conducting innovative research at the Visitor Center, collaborating with the public to gain a deeper understanding of what and how visitors 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.

The new laboratory will allow guest scholars from academia, museums, zoos, and aquariums nationwide to conduct their own research into learning, using state-of-the-art human observation technologies. The project will also provide significant opportunities for graduate students to conduct their own research.

Learn more:

Contact Info

Oregon Sea Grant
1600 SW Western Blvd
Suite 350
Corvallis OR 97333
Phone: 541-737-2714
FAX: 541-737-7958

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