On the top floor of sturdy Papazian Hall, the clinical consistency of off-white walls and surfaces is interrupted by a tangerine-orange couch set behind an exuberantly patterned carpet, opposite cubby holes full of toys and books. This is the lobby of Kidlab, the Cognition and Development Laboratory at Swarthmore College, which hundreds of children visit every year to be studied and observed, contributing in tiny but important ways to the understanding of human thought and knowledge acquisition — how we learn to learn.
Undergraduate researchers Maria Liu and Jordan Sciascia, working quietly as they await their young subject, are also learning — how to design research, and how to perform it. Their mentor in this work is Dr. Stella Christie, associate professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, who serves as principal investigator on student-run research at the Kidlab. Her programs here allow undergraduates to do meaningful research, contributing to scientific knowledge and to their own education in areas of study including not only psychology, but also education, linguistics and other majors at Swarthmore.
Dr. Christie said, “Students come to the lab and develop a specific area of research interest that matches up with my areas of expertise and interest — cognition and development. The focus of my work is to answer the critical questions of where knowledge comes from, and one of the best ways to study cognitive development is to look at a population where the mind is still forming.”
Hence Kidlab, where during a visit, 3- to 7-year-old subjects may participate in several studies, up to eight, that are running at a given time. “Parents bring children because they want to contribute to science; all of our research results are published in scientific journals,” Dr. Christie said. “Also, it’s a fun activity for children, involving games and little gifts at the end of the sessions. We recruit as much as we can around Wallingford and Swarthmore, at day cares and preschools in this area, and we are trying to get participants from Chester in order to increase diversity of study groups.”
What sort of data is collected? As might be expected with subjects who usually don’t read yet, questions are posed verbally, and children indicate their answers by pointing to one of two sources of stimulus. Jordan Sciascia, a linguistics and language major, will create her senior thesis based upon the work she is doing in Kidlab.
In Jordan’s “rule learning” study, children meet a talking animatronic frog with a story: she has become lost, and needs to communicate with her family in their native tongue, an example of which is played for the subjects. The child can help the frog by discerning its true language in later examples. Even though the frog language — a series of meaningless syllables — is inscrutable to humans, the rhythmic patterns of syllable combinations can be recognized as “alike” even by infants, Jordan said. “Children have this abstract ability to hear and recognize the pattern in these ‘sentences,’ even before they know what words are.”
In the study run by Maria Liu, children are first shown a picture of a racially- and gender-diverse school class, then asked to choose items preferred by one pictured sub-group over another, generalizing that preference to the whole class. The intention is to measure whether children feel that a diverse sample offers better evidence for generalization, Maria said. “Five-year-olds can use different types of reasoning, including inductive reasoning. We want to know in what tasks they will make choices based upon their experiences of diversity,” Maria said. A junior psychology major, she was referred to the Kidlab by her developmental psych professor as a venue to explore the learning process, and to learn research theory and skills.
Questions in the studies evolve according to the consistency and detail of the responses elicited from participants. “Part of the process is making refinements as we go. My study is on version 4.2,” Jordan says. Each revision essentially resets the counter, so that the sessions the researchers conduct with 5-year-old Landon Soeiro this day might yield usable data, or might contribute to further refinement. Approximately 30 sets of responses are required for a statistically valid base of data.
These students and others working in the Kidlab work closely with Professor Christie, who strives to involve students in presentation of results at international scientific conferences and in journal articles. “Stella is very approachable,” Jordan says. Maria agrees, saying she and the professor worked together an hour or two each day during the week when Maria was designing the study, and continues to observe interviews and contribute occasional suggestions.
Dr. Christie said, “It takes a semester or more to run a research project, and the lab is always full. I meet with my students at least once a week in the semester, but during summer, it’s full time. My students are really dedicated, and it is a joy to work with them.”