During my STEP project, I was a research assistant in the Virtual Environment, Communication Technology, and Online Research (VECTOR) Lab, within the Ohio State School of Communication. This research assessed the user experience of an interactive website called Fluid Earth Viewer, which displays the planet’s atmosphere and weather patterns in real time. Some of my responsibilities included watching videos of participants interacting with the website, recording my observations, and determine what areas of the site required improvements in usability.
This project was extremely influential in the development of both my career goals as well as my overall global outlook. It exposed me to critical societal problems and forced me to contemplate certain global situations that I had previously been sheltered from. For example, I now hold a greater awareness and understanding of the chilling reality of global climate change; I always believed that climate change is a serious threat to our world, but this experience added urgency to my concerns by showing me all the specific pollutants that plague our air and atmosphere. This project has been part of my inspiration to pursue a career that will hopefully allow me to address climate concerns within my own community—I am certainly not able to immediately institute largescale global climate improvements, but by focusing on bettering my own community, I can promote bottom-up environmental protection and sustainability.
Furthermore, I have gained a greater awareness and appreciation for promoting accessibility in everyday life. I was able to directly observe the frustrations that arise when technology is lacking in usability and accessibility. I now apply the critical thinking I practiced in the VECTOR lab to everyday devices and situations, considering whether something is truly accessible and usable for all people, regardless of ability. Creating a more accessible world leads to a more satisfied and unified community. Lastly, this project was critical in the development of my career goals, by allowing me to witness and participate in an intersection of digital media and the environment. Each week, I was able to study a website that created a truly impressive combination of technology and the environment. Throughout college, I had been torn between my passion for the environment and my passion for English, specifically digital media; my assistantship highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of research and led me to the perfect graduate specialization that will allow me to combine my passions.
The bulk of my time as a research assistant consisted of analyzing videos of participants exploring and completing tasks on the Fluid Earth Viewer website. One of the global projections that concerned me most was the section displaying gases and aerosols in the atmosphere. In participant videos and my own exploration of the website, I was able to see the problematic concentration of gases like Sulfur Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide lurking over our heads. These gases are most prevalent in highly populated, industrious countries, and the Fluid Earth Viewer clearly depicts their overwhelming presence. Being able to fully visualize mankind’s drastic effects on the global climate, instead of merely reading about it online, was quite the wake-up call for myself. I gained an increased urgency for addressing the climate crisis and began to brainstorm how I can cut down on my own contribution to atmospheric pollutants. I have begun to practice more eco-friendly modes transportation, cut down on consumption that creates pollutants, and vote for candidates and legislation that promote renewable energy and environmental conservation.
Arguably more important than the website in the research process were the participants themselves; after all, the website is designed and tailored to their needs and preferences. Some features of the website were quite difficult for participants to locate or use, which is expected in a young, constantly changing web development project. Unfortunately, users often believed that they were the main reason that could not successfully perform a task, and this sense of incompetency is a common side effect of ineffective user centered design. Other times, users were visibly frustrated when the site did not behave the way they expected, and the combination of these problems caused me to start thinking about usability and accessibility outside of the research lab. The overall goal of new technologies, or almost anything made by humans, is to make life easier or more efficient. However, that is not always the case for everyone—objects often neglect certain members of the population, whether intentionally or unintentionally, but user research like that on the Fluid Earth Viewer is an excellent way to combat exclusion or frustration. Listening to community members is essential to enhancing the accessibility of society, and new technologies are not the only things that require considerations as to their accessibility. I hope to contribute to conversations of access in all facets of life—from other newly budding websites to objects as simple as city sidewalks.
My research assistantship opened avenues that allowed me to discover my ultimate passions in life and watch as they all neatly intertwined before me. Throughout the project, I was fascinated by the relationships between the participant, the website, and the environment; each was an equally important component, and constant communication between the parts was required for the whole machine (the research process) to work successfully. For the past year or so I had planned on pursuing a career with technology, but I was unable to let go of my passion for the environment. In fact, I entered college as an Environmental Science major before hesitantly switching to English (which I love). The fusion of the environment and digital media in this research experience showed me the possibility of finding such an interdisciplinary field and led me to search for similar opportunities for my career path, eventually leading me to environmental rhetoric. This subfield of English deals with how people communicate about the environment, and it is part of my intended specialization in graduate school.
Finally understanding that research is not always limited to one particular field, I am now able to combine my passions and confidently pursue a career in academia. This experience cemented my desires to conduct my own research one day as a university professor. I hope to study the relationship between social media and the environment—more specifically, how companies talk about the environment online and what rhetorical strategies prove effective at promoting sustainability, conservation, and environmental policy change. Without this STEP project, I may not have discovered how I could combine my passions for English and the environment nor realize my desire to conduct my own research. I hope to one day design an experiment that will inspire another young research assistant like myself.
-Luke Van Niel