Dispatches from Oslo: Fulbright Scholar Sarah Lowe Discusses Her Research Year and Life Abroad in Norway
by Julie SpiveySarah Lowe is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design in the School of Art at the University of Tennessee and has spent the 2012-13 academic year as a Fulbright Scholar and visiting researcher at the InterMedia Interdisciplinary Research Group at the University of Oslo in Norway. Her current work focuses on the development of mobile platforms designed to interpret sites of cultural heritage. Lowe is a former Steering Committee member for the AIGA Design Educators Community.
How did you connect with your host institution and collaborators at the University of Oslo?
In 2011 I was invited to present a project at the International Digital Storytelling Conference in Lillehammer, Norway. While there I made acquaintances with Knut Lundby, the founder of InterMedia who encouraged me to consider it as a location for a Fulbright year. He also introduced me to Dr. Palmyre Pierroux who works at Intermedia exploring the learning outcomes of meaning-making activities through technology specifically within the culture heritage sector. For the past few years she has led the CONTACT project within Intermedia (Communicating Organizations in Networks of Art and Cultural Heritage Technologies). InterMedia is a research group under the Faculty of Education that investigates the learning outcomes of technology use in both formal and informal educational settings.
What projects are you working on?
With colleagues here at InterMedia I have co-authored a paper that will be presented at the upcoming CUMULUS conference (conveniently located in Oslo this year) discussing the literacies emerging designers will need to design for what we are referring to as the ‘distributed museum’– or the experience of museum content through mobile media when outside the physical context of a museum setting. This ties in well to my current research project working with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to develop a mobile application interpreting sites of Cherokee history inside the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina.
I have also co-authored another paper discussing the role of the design experiment in research to be presented at the NORDES (Norwegian Design Research Network) conference in Copenhagen; I am involved in early brainstorming and discussion for a project that will investigate the use of sound in on-site interpretive structures, as well as participated in bi-weekly research meetings in which researchers or PhD students present their work and receive feedback. Outside of the University of Oslo, I have had the opportunity to participate in several workshops sponsored by the Centre for Design Research at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design.
Do you notice a difference in perceptions about the value of design in Scandinavia?
Yes, there is great appreciation for design here which to some extent feels like a national right. The Scandinavian design ethos – a conscious use of the materials at hand in a functional and beautiful manner – originates from the limitations that harsh climates placed on procuring resources before the modern era. Design in Norway is present on a policy level through the nationally funded Norwegian Design Council to encourage the use of good design practices across Norwegian business and industry. Art is highly valued as well. Every building that costs over a particular amount is required by law to build in a component of public art.
You relocated to Oslo for the academic year with your family. How have they handled the transition?
My husband is a web designer who works for himself, so transitioning his work was easy. After much consideration we decided to enroll our kids in a Norwegian public school so that they could be immersed in the new environment. Norwegians as young as 10 speak excellent English, so my 11-year-old had no problem assimilating. My 7-year-old spoke the international language of ‘play’ so he too has been able to develop friendships. Both are lucky to have teachers who work with them to ensure they are on track. Now nine months later they both seem at ease in understanding the language. The challenge will be figuring out how to sustain the new language skills when we get back home!
What have been the most surprising and rewarding aspects about life is Oslo?
I was quite surprised to discover how well everyone speaks English, which is a cliché, as this is typically the first thing most English-speaking visitors say about Oslo. Students begin English studies in first grade and continue in earnest until graduation.
Norway contains some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. There is a reason that the tagline for the country is ‘Powered By Nature’ with the Norwegians being great appreciators of the outdoors. One of the more rewarding aspects of being here in Oslo is its proximity as a large city to an array of forests. Coming from the mountainous side of Tennessee, it has been great to hop on a city bus and be in a densely wooded area within 20 minutes. It is common to see people getting on and off the busses and trains carrying their skis and walking in their ski shoes (cross country skies, that is).
Oslo is one of the most expensive cities the world. How do costs compare to prices in the US?
Yes, costs here are quite staggering. With the exception of when traveling, we have not taken our whole family out to dinner together once (the cost for a few pizzas and drinks can run about $120 for 5). Prices at low-cost grocery stores are around $7 for a single beer, $6 for a loaf of bread and $5 for a half gallon of milk. Ironically chicken is a more expensive meat, about $15 a pack. On the flip side, the price of salmon is lower than home ($7 for 4 filets) and the produce, much of which is shipped up from Spain, is some of the best I have ever had.
What will take back to your students and your research from this experience?
Being embedded in a research unit that focuses on Information Communication Technologies (ICT) and learning over these past nine months has not only advanced my research but also will have a direct affect on my teaching practices upon return. The broader experience also provides insight into how I can be a more effective educator; I can utilize these varied first-hand experiences in encouraging my students to gain exposure to life outside their comfort zones. I am in the process of working out a study abroad program that I am hopeful to launch in the Summer of 2015.
For anyone interested in pursuing a Fulbright Award, Lowe offers a few suggestions based on her application experience:
1. Work with your campus research office. I had many misconceptions regarding the Fulbright application and requirements and was fortunate to be mentored through the process by our Office of Research at the University of Tennessee.
2. Know your project. In the application you must be clear about the project you plan to work on and more specifically why you need to be in this particular location to execute your activities. For me this meant embedding myself in a research center that focused on the learning science behind ICT usage in education, an area in which I sought to increase my understanding.
3. Locate and connect with a host institution. Except for a few circumstances, you will need a letter of support from a host institution that confirms your relationship with the institution or unit while abroad. Do your research; there are horror stories of Fulbright Scholars arriving at their institutions and not even receiving a key for three months or being asked who they are and why they are there. Universities and research centers that have an established reputation for working with visiting researchers or the Fulbright Program are typically best prepared to host.
4. Decide if you want to teach. Unless your goal of working abroad is specifically to study teaching practices elsewhere, I recommend applying for a research track. I began my application trying to identify courses I could teach when someone at my host institution suggested I aim to focus on my own work and take a break from the classroom. My research would not have evolved nearly as much had my time been split with a teaching obligation. If you do teach, ask questions of past grantees regarding the educational culture. There is inevitably a curve in assimilating into a university classroom abroad that can cause some frustration if you aren’t prepared to be open and shift your teaching approach.
Images from Oslo and other parts of Norway courtesy of Sarah Lowe.