Archive for ‘Psychology’

March 19, 2015

Engaging Parents in Science and Nature Education

by Melissa Harding


While we talk quite a bit in this space about engaging children in nature, there is one audience that we often forget: parents. This is especially true in informal education settings; adults are often lost to the tasks of caregiving and disengage from programs, even during ones in which they are specifically there to play a part. Creating programming that appeals to both children and their caretakers is a difficult task, but is an important one. Giving adults opportunities to engage in meaningful interactions with their children in nature not only helps children to create lasting memories that will foster a love of the natural world, but allows parents to connect with both nature and their child in a way that can be life-changing for them as well. Families with small children are increasing the time they spend in informal learning institutions and research suggests that adult interactions with children in these spaces positively impacts the experience. This means that there is a real need to better understand effective ways to engage the whole family together. At Phipps, we focus on two different ways of engaging adults; we give them experiences that help them to learn more about their child and how their child learns, and we give them the tools to support their child’s learning both at Phipps and at home.

This first approach is through our partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. We are working with researchers from CMU’s Cognitive Development Lab. They do this by playing games with their subjects that are designed to take show researchers how children think and how their thinking changes with development. While they watch their child participate, caregivers are given information on the study itself to help them understand more about the research question being investigated. This is a wonderful way for parents and children to engage with the research and, as the research questions often change quickly, there are many eager return customers.

Studies on the effectiveness of this approach have found that watching children participate in research studies increases adult awareness of child development as a science and that one-on-one conversations between adults and scientists increase adult understanding of the scientific process and their overall scientific literacy. Additionally, participants and viewers alike learn how science is applicable to their own lives, how research is conducted, what scientists look and act like, and how to answer tough questions using the scientific method.  It also can ignite the spark of lifelong science learning, one of the goals of effective science communication.

IMG_0213Another way that we engage parents is through family programming. Allowing adults to participate in our early childhood programs is a way that we can help to create connections to nature that they will carry back home. Our educators try to facilitate an interaction between family members, not dictate a classroom-type experience. We help parents to see the best ways to interact with their child outdoors; this includes teaching them a variety of fun observation exercises that young children enjoy, encouraging sensory experiences with plants and animals, and teaching respect for nature and appropriate boundaries. Our programs are not times for parents to check out and let our educators run the show, but really a time in which parents can get into the dirt with their kids and have fun. Often, parents learn just as many new things as their children and have been known to ask just as many good questions.

While we offer a number of adult education classes at Phipps, many young parents do not have the time to take them. By offering family programming, we are able to reach a very busy group of people and give them the tools to have meaningful outdoor experiences with their children. Research shows that spending time outdoors with a trusted adult creates an experience that children will remember long into adulthood; many naturalists cite these types of experiences as being influential in their lives and in their love of nature. We want to foster more of these experiences for all of our students and parents alike, hoping that together we can create a group of excited naturalists and scientists.

Looking for easy observation tools to incorporate into your programs or family time? Check out this post! Or check out our Backyard Connections series for ideas to connect with nature outdoors.

To learn more about increasing scientific literacy through museum research, check out this post!

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman.

December 17, 2014

Kids and Cats: How Caring for Pets Can Increase Our Environmental Stewardship

by Melissa Harding


“Until one has loved an animal,  a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France

Many of us have pets at home; whether it is a cat, dog, gerbil or fish, these critters play an important role in our lives. In fact, about two-thirds of American homes have at least one pet.  We often think of our pets as our companions. We dote on them, play with them, and try to get them to behave. While we know that our pets can make us smile, they are also giving us many unseen benefits. They are a good source of social and emotional support, increasing overall well-being. Research shows that pet owners fare better than non-pet owners in the areas of self-esteem and physical fitness. They are also found to be less lonely, less fearful, more extroverted and more conscientious than non-pet owners. In children, the effects are even greater; caring for a pet teaches empathy, kindness, and responsibility. However, there is one more benefit pets can give us that has only recently begun to be studied: greater connection to nature. Caring for pets has been shown to increase our ability to care for nature in general and to increase our feelings to connectedness to the natural world. After all, we only care about (and for) the things we love.

When we talk about nature, we don’t often think of the animal companions that we interact with every day. However, human interaction with domesticated animals goes back many generations. The earliest known domesticated animal was not a cow or a pig, but a dog. We have been domesticating animals for companionship longer than for food, that much is clear. Maybe that’s because humans naturally want to connect with animals. E.O. Wilson hypothesized this connection to animals in his theory of biophilia, which says that humans are innately drawn to the natural world. By seeking relationships with animals, especially with pets, we are able to connect with nature. It has been suggested that owning a pet symbolizes a unity with nature and acts to satisfy part of this human need for a connection to the natural world. Humans love being with animals, both wild and domesticated. After all, we are all part of nature, our pets included.

There is also research showing that attachment to animals correlates with a positive orientation towards the environment and vice versa. In other words, it seems that your love for your pet makes you more likely to feel connected to nature and that if you feel connected to nature, you are more likely to feel a bond with animals. So how does connecting to nature through our pets get us to be better environmental stewards? To answer this, we need to get into some environmental psychology. There are three psychological components to a person’s connection with nature: a sense of connection, a caring response and commitment to action. In a scenario in which there is a connection to the natural world, that connection leads to caring for nature and then to taking actions on its behalf; in a scenario in which a connection to nature is absent, that lack leads to caring for oneself and then taking actions to protect oneself above all else. If we are feeling more connected to nature through our pets, then we will be more likely to take actions that protect the natural world that we care so much about.

IMG_1402However, you probably don’t need a psychologist to tell you what you can already observe in your children and yourself; there is ample research showing that children learn nurturing skills by bonding with and caring for pets. Many naturalist educators, including David Sobel, advocate for cultivating children’s relationships with animals from a very young age as a way of increasing their empathy for nature. The bond that forms between children and animals has been shown to increase social competence and sense of well-being. As a child cares for and nurtures an animal, he or she develops a sense of empathy, which in turn promotes pro-social behaviors towards other people and the natural world. This is not only a predictor of a successful adult, but also a predictor of a future naturalist.  Its clear that the attitude of stewardship taught through walking a dog carries through into the rest of life.

A Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The dog was created especially for children. He is the God of frolic.” Dogs and other pets are great companions for children and wild animals can be excellent examples as well. Here are some ways that you can use help your child bond with the natural world through animals:

1.  Give responsibility: The best way to promote caring for animals is to actually care for them. Give your child responsibility towards the pets in your home, making sure that the assigned tasks are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age level and abilities. Support your child in this work, helping them to remember that they take care of their pets not because it is a chore, but because their pet needs them. Encourage your child’s teacher to consider a classroom pet; check out this website for convincing reasons why.
2. Go for a walk: Beyond pets, also search for wild animals on your walks. Children always enjoy seeing animals in their journeys; point out birds, squirrels, and other pets. It doesn’t matter if they are common, children will be excited to spot them.
3. Go to the zoo or aquarium: Seeing wild animals is very exciting for children of all ages (adults as well).  Many zoos have programs that allow visitors to help feed and care for the animals, as well as petting areas for children. Point out staff taking care of the animals you see.
3. Look for examples: Animals play a central role in many children’s books and media (up 90% of counting and language-learning books); this can be a great way to expose children to animals from other parts of the world or situations they are unlikely to experience themselves. Use the examples of human/animal interaction to talk with your child about proper behavior towards animals. Ask your child to view the situation from the animal’s perspective. Also have a discussion about the animal’s role in the world, whether it is in a neighborhood, a home, or a wild habitat.
4. Recognize undesirable behavior: Mistreatment of animals can be a warning sign of developing aggressive behavior. Deliberately harmful or frightening actions towards animals should be discouraged. While very young children are often not developmentally able to understand proper behavior towards animals, older children may need parental intervention if negative behavior persists. The Human Society has a helpful guide in dealing with negative behavior towards animals.

To learn more about how interaction with the natural world can increase empathy in children, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Jeff Harding.



November 25, 2014

Cultivating Attitudes of Gratitude: Teaching Thankfulness Through Nature

by Melissa Harding


How often do you stop and count your blessings? Gratitude may seem to be all the rage right now, with bloggers and magazines talking about the importance of  having an attitude of gratitude, but there is some real research supporting this trend. Studies have shown that people who cultivate gratefulness are happier, more optimistic, more energetic and nicer than those who don’t. Not only that, but they are physically healthier as well. In fact, gratitude is even becoming commonly used as a tool in therapeutic interventions; it can function as a kind of “social support”, which is what psychologists call the perception that people have of being care about and for by others. Many believe that cultivating attitudes of gratitude can help people to build the psychological capital which is beneficial in difficult situations, such as the death of a loved one or a job loss. In short, being grateful is pretty great!

So what is gratitude? Robert Emmons, perhaps one of the foremost experts on gratitude research, has this definition of gratitude: “[Gratitude is] an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” There is also a social dimension to gratitude, which is that it is a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires acknowledging the social support in our lives.

Research has found this to be a positive attitude in children as well as adults. It seems that materialist youth tend to do poorly, while youth that demonstrate pro-social behavior, such as gratitude, flourish. In fact, this same study found that higher levels of gratitude can uniquely predict outcomes like higher grade-point average, life satisfaction, and social integration, as well as lower levels of depression and envy. In contrast, higher levels of materialism predict the opposite outcomes. Research shows that as children internalize materialistic values, their well-being and self-worth actually decreases. Mental health also decreases, since many of their perceived needs are not met. Gratitude, however, seems to have an opposite effect, in part because it helps people fulfill their basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

DSC_1465Children who cultivate grateful attitudes are more successful, exhibit more pro-social behaviors, and generally have higher overall well-being. Additionally, grateful children develop intrinsic goals, such as helping the community and connecting with others, rather than materialist goals, like fame and wealth. This may seem like common sense, and to an extent it really is. We all like to be around people who are kind and positive and we like to help those people to achieve success. On the other hand, materialism erodes friendships and creates attitudes of envy; those people experience less success for the same reasons that their grateful peers succeed. Having grateful attitudes set children up for success as adults in the same way that being kind and empathetic does.

However, this is much easier said than done. We live in a culture that values materialism as a measure of success and this can be difficult to avoid for adults, let alone children. As they develop, children naturally internalize attitudes and values from society and those societal concerns have a real effect on their worldview. One sure way to increase gratitude in both your child and yourself is to go outside. Being outside has a host of benefits outside of increasing gratitude and interacting in a sensory way with nature is shown to increase appreciation for both the natural world and for life itself. Explore your backyard or local green space and observe the trees, flowers, dirt, and critters that live there. Use magnifying glasses to observe bugs and snowflakes, dig your hands in the dirt, and smell the roses (literally). If you’re feeling brave, maybe taste a dandelion or some clean snow. The more time you spend outside with your child, the more they will love and appreciate the natural world. For some ideas to help you make the most of your time outside, check out this post.

Nature is not the only way to cultivate gratitude; here are some other ways to help your child develop a grateful heart:

1. Keep a gratitude journal: Recording 3-5 things per day that you are grateful for is shown to increase gratitude. This can be done as a family on a communal board, during dinner as part of conversation, or in an actual journal (virtual or otherwise). A great start is to ask your child to share “three good things” that happened to him or her that day. Remember to share your own list as well, making it a family activity rather than a daily quiz for your child. You are a great role model for gratitude and your own attitude will go a long way in influencing your child.
2. Write a gratitude letter: This is not just a thank-you note for a birthday gift, but a real, heart-felt expression of gratitude for someone else. Help your child write a short note of gratitude to a family member, friend, or teacher; adding pictures or a small, homemade present is even better. It can be anything, a homemade card or just a note, but the goal is to get your child to articulate how others help him and to give him the experience of thanking those people with sincerity.
3. Practice mindfully receiving gifts: Help your child to consider that someone mindfully intended to give him a gift or help him, even at a small cost to themselves. Research shows that this in particular is a helpful practice.
4. Say grace: Whether or not your family subscribes to a particular religion, recognizing the work that went into a meal is a good thing. This can take a more traditional or religious tone if desired. If not, say a small blessing on the farmers who grew the food and those hands that prepared it.
5. Help others: Volunteer as a family to help those less fortunate. Whether it is a shift at the soup kitchen or donating toys to charity, helping other helps us appreciate our own blessings even more.

To learn more about the ever-growing science of gratitude, check out this article by The Greater Good or this one on the benefits of appreciation. Or read the full article cited above.

To learn about the benefits of nature on pro-social behavior, check out this blog post.

The above photos are taken by Science Education staff.

November 4, 2014

The Nature Cure: Creating More Self-Disciplined Kids (and Adults!)

by Melissa Harding


“With self-discipline, most anything is possible.”
– Theodore Roosevelt

Self-discipline is not a fun topic to talk about; most people experience various lapses in self-discipline all time, whether it is sneaking an extra cookie or eating half of a cake. We tend to feel pretty guilty about them, as if it shows a weakness in our collective character. Truthfully and thankfully, research shows that the mechanism within us that helps us to be disciplined, to delay gratification or to concentrate on a boring project, can only take so much before it snaps. This “mental muscle” needs to be renewed after a long period of use, like a day at school or work. Unfortunately, self-discipline is the skill we use to achieve our goals, stay out of trouble and generally be more thoughtful about our words and deeds. It turns out that we really need it to get the job done. Luckily, there is a cure for this mental fatigue: nature! Research has shown that views of nature, as well as actually being in and interacting with it, can help us to restore our powers of focus and determination.

To begin, what actually makes us self-disciplined? It turns out that there are three main components to this trait: concentration, inhibiting initial impulse, and delaying gratification. These are each distinct forms of self-discipline that help us to over-ride unhelpful tendencies in favor of something better. Concentration requires keeping the mind from wandering and being able to focus despite being bored, frustrated or tired. When we are too mentally fatigued to concentrate, we can spend hours trying to accomplish a task and never truly finish it; this is true with children who stare at books for hours and never really learn. Inhibiting initial impulses requires the ability to ignore our first response to a problem and consider alternate solutions. It makes us more prudent; impulsivity is considered to be linked with risky behavior. Delaying gratification requires overcoming impatience and the tendency to favor short-term rewards over long-term goals. These three aspects of self-discipline are also linked with the ability to control anger and deal with conflict.


Research suggests that these three forms of self-discipline can be renewed by time spent in or around nature. This is not a new study, but the applications are timeless. Scientists from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign ran a study on underserved urban youth, trying to figure out what influences their self-discipline. Outcomes such as academic underachievement, juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy are risk factors for many underserved youth and can often be predicted by levels of self-discipline, so understanding how to increase this skill among teens is very important. For this study, researchers focused on residential views of nature; they measured the self-discipline skills of a sample of urban youth that had either views of nature or views of the built environment near their homes, examining participants separately by gender. The results show that, for girls, near-home nature was systematically related to each of the three forms of self-discipline; girls showed significant improvements in their testing scores over those with views of the built environment. Boys showed no significant relationship between near-home nature and any of the outcomes.

Why this relationship between nature and attention? Certain elements in the environment are effortlessly engaging and draw our attention involuntarily, such as moving objects, bright colors, etc. For things that do not involuntarily engage us, we use our powers of direct attention. Since natural settings often draw our involuntary attention, it assists in the recovery of the mental muscles that direct our attention. Exposure to nature and natural environments in multiple forms has been shown to be restorative. Research has also been done showing that children with attentional difficulties perform better than usual after participating in activities that take place in natural settings. The same study found that the greener a child’s usual play setting, the less severe their attention problems were rated in general. Taken overall, this evidence suggests that regular contact with nature is crucial to self-discipline and restoring directed attention in both children and adults. The disparity between girls and boys within the featured study has no definite explanation, though researchers strongly suggest that boys need more direct contact with nature to receive the same benefits as the girls.


Increasing the amount of nature that your child encounters daily is a great way to get the benefits that this study suggests. Children deal with stress and anxiety all the time; they are also expected to be able to sit still and process huge amounts of information all day long, then go home and do homework. This is a lot to ask of anyone and knowing how to restore their minds is an important skill for children. Additionally, children with greater self-discipline are more apt to resist negative peer pressure and achieve academically. Understanding how our brains work – and how to help them work at their most optimum level – is helpful to children and adults alike. We all can use a little nature in our every day; make sure that both you and your family get a daily dose of nature and keep your brain working at its best.

Here are some ways to increase your family’s exposure to the natural world:
1. Go outside: The best way to get the benefits of nature is to be in it. Play games outside as a family, read a book under a tree or just explore. Being outside together with family and alone are both great experiences for kids.
2. Bring the outdoors in: Views of nature can happen inside as well. Invest in some beautiful houseplants, try your hand at forcing bulbs, purchase or pick some flowers, or hang some nature-inspired art (or even make some together). Bringing a bit of the outdoors in is a good way to put a smile on anyone’s face.
3. Green your yard: You don’t have to be a professional landscaper to green up your yard. Even the smallest yard can be improved with a tree or some grasses. Consider adding a shrub or two to attract birds and other critters to your yard. Live in an apartment or other non-alterable space? Try adding some window boxes with flowers or stick a bird feeder to your window – every little bit of nature makes a difference!
4. Visit your local park or green space: Take a family field trip to your local park or other green spaces near your neighborhood. Don’t know where to go? Check out this great resource from Nature Rocks to find all the green places near you.
5. Read about nature: Get lost in a good book – visit the library as a family and check out some of these nature-themed classics: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, or Hatchet by Gary Paulson.
6. Advocate for natural views from schools: Nature views outside of schools are important as well. Advocate for courtyard and classroom plantings, volunteer to plant flowers in the spring, and get involved with your school’s parent association. The best way to fight for nature in schools in with other like-minded parents.

Read the featured study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and learn more about how nature refreshes our self-discipline skills.

Learn how a connection to nature creates confident, successful kids.

These restorative views of nature were brought to you by Science Education and Research staff.

November 3, 2014

“You Unplugged”: Challenge #1 in the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps

by Melissa Harding


For one day this past month, over 1,250 middle and high school students turned off their iPods, Kindles and computers and went outside, as part of the first challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps. The first challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps for both middle and high school students, You Unplugged, asked participants to spend an entire day unplugged from all the social and entertainment technology in their lives. High school students wrote a reflective essay describing their time unplugged, whereas middle school students both wrote essays and had the option of also writing an original poem about the experience. While some of these essays reflect the drama of adolescence, many of them were striking in their creativity, honesty and scope.

Many students talked about how they were better able to connect with friends, family and even the natural world. Winning essayist from Springdale Junior High writes, “Without the distraction of a bright little screen I became more aware of my surroundings. Admittedly, if I would have been asked on day one what are the colors of the flowers in my flower bed I would not have known. On day two I studied their dark purple color, their shape, and how the rain drops stuck to the petals. I went for a walk in nature and observed.”

Another middle school student spent her day making art, from practicing her flute to painting. The second place author, from Shaler Area Middle School, felt that being away from her electronics improved her art so much that she has committed to reduced technology use overall, even after the challenge. She writes, “As for playing the flute, I can now feel the music that I play. Notes pour out naturally. I’m prepared for my Alley Valley Honors Band audition and hold the front seat in concert at school, simply because I chose to practice for 50 minutes each day in place of watching TV. Cutting down on electronics has changed my life for the better.”

The high school entries focused much more on how difficult it was to give up technology; many felt that their lifelines to civilization had been cut. The first place winning author, from Gateway High School, wrote that his day without technology made him realize that he was “addicted” to his devices. “Based on this experiment, I am pretty sure that electronics act like a drug with their addicting effect on my mind.” He goes on to write, “The huge usage of them is a major waste of time and a good example of how Americans live far above their means. They don’t serve any practical uses yet we overuse them all day long.”

Other students wrote that they were ready to make a real change in their lives. While no one wrote that they were giving up technology for good, many said that they would take more time every day to look out the window and go outside. The third place author, from the A.W. Beattie Career Center, writes, “That night when I went to bed, I decided to leave all of my things unplugged. I didn’t need them to entertain me. I went to bed knowing what I had learned today. I have the quietness of the outdoors, the sunlight, warm clothing, and a nice book collection. I can always go take a walk, and I can go play at the park. I honestly could go more days that didn’t involve all the batteries and chargers of our electronics, for just some of the silence, sweetness and activity of a natural day.”

Overall, most participants reflected that they learned a great deal from their technology fast. They spent more time with family, friends and pets. They also spent more time outside; many reported feeling free and happy outdoors. The consensus was that while this was a tough assignment, it was a good thing to do.

Thomas Huxley, contemporary of Charles Darwin, said about the disconnect between people and nature: “To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.” Many youth today are walking through a hall of backwards pictures, never knowing what they are missing. Fortunately, through challenges like You Unplugged and others, some are flipping these paintings over and discovering their beauty.

Winners of the You, Unplugged: Nearby Nature challenge will be interviewed about their experience on The Saturday Light Brigade family radio station on November 22 at 10:05 am. Tune in to WRCT at 88.3 FM for their 25-min segment! Interviews will be available online about a week later.

The above photos were taken and are copyrighted by Phipps Science Education and Research staff.

October 30, 2014

Dr. Kalnicky Talks to Pittsburgh Tribune Review!

by Melissa Harding


This week, Science Education and Research director Dr. Emily Kalnicky was featured in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review! Emily spoke about the importance of connecting people and nature and her passion for research.  In addition to her biography, the article also outlined her vision for the future of research at Phipps:

“Her biggest project, though, is creating an open-ended, multiphase Biophilia Institute, where scientists from Phipps, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions will conduct ecology-based research, and members of the public can attend workshops, hear speakers and otherwise engage with scientists. Biophilia means a love for nature, and the institute will explore this human-nature relationship with four points of focus: education and social justice, human health and wellness, ecological health and wellness, and communication and outreach.”

We are so excited to help Emily make this vision as reality as we move forward. Join us in congratulating Emily on her interview!

To read the whole interview, click here.

To read more about Emily’s research, check out her biography on the blog

Photo © Paul g. Wiegman

August 26, 2014

Increasing Scientific Literacy Through Museum Research

by Melissa Harding


Every day, scientific research is being done on any number of topics. A quick browse through PLOS One, a peer-reviewed, open-access online journal for scientific papers of all kinds, reveals topics such as: molecular threading, NaOH debittering, and elevated levels of carbon monoxide in mouse exhalations. While these are surely important topics to medicine, agriculture and other fields of study, they don’t mean very much to the average person. In fact, much of the research that goes on in science often does not make it into the popular culture; sometimes this work is very specialized, sometimes it is perceived as irrelevant, or sometimes it is difficult to understand. This results in a poor understanding of what a scientist is and does. Luckily, there are many researchers who realize this and are trying to break down the barriers between scientists and the public. The Living Laboratory, an educational, on-site research program developed at the Museum of Science, Boston, is one such organization.

In the Living Lab model, scientists in the fields of child developmental and psychological research conduct their studies at local museums, recruiting study participants from museum visitors. These researchers then work with museum educators to communicate  their work to visitors through innovative activities and one-on-one interactions with the researchers themselves. These studies occur on the museum floor, in plain view of visitors, allowing them to be drawn in to the process. Participants and viewers alike learn how science is applicable to their own lives, how research is conducted, what scientists look and act like and how to answer tough questions using the scientific method.  Studies on the effectiveness of this approach have found that watching children participate in research studies increases adult awareness of child development as a science and that one-on-one conversations between adults and scientists increase adult understanding of the scientific process and their overall scientific literacy.

TIMG_0157he Living Laboratory has been so successful that it has spawned the National Living Lab Initiative. This program has created “hubs” in regions across the country to connect museums and researchers together. In addition to The Museum of Science, Boston, the Maryland Science Center, the Madison Children’s Museum and the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry act as hub leaders, helping other museums to adopt a similar model.

At Phipps, we are working with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Cognitive Development Lab to provide a museum setting for their work.  CMU’s Cognitive Development Lab is interested in gaining a better understanding of “how children generalize knowledge they have to new situations, how children acquire language, what role language plays in knowledge generalization, how children maintain focused attention, and what role focused attention plays in acquisition of new knowledge.” They do this playing games with their subjects that are designed to take show researchers how children think and how their thinking changes with development.

Two of the games that they are currently playing with our visitors are the “Help Zippo” game and the “Perceptual Similarity” game. The first, Help Zippo, investigates how children organize plants and animals based on the relationships between them. Children are given cards with black and white pictures of plants and animals and asked to sort them onto a game board four different times. Each time, researchers are looking to see how they are grouped and whether children can group the pictures in multiple ways. The Perceptual Similarity game tests the degree to which children can use their knowledge of how objects are categorized in a situation in which they are presented with conflicting information. Children are shown a set of three pictures, two of which are similar and one of which is close, but slight different (e.g. a lemon, a lemon wedge and a yellow tennis ball). Children are told that the similar objects go together and asked to pick which two match based on physical similarity. Both of these games test category-based reasoning, but the Cognitive Development Lab also tests other topics, such as the development of focused attention during pre-school years and the effect of classroom visual environment on allocating attention and learning.

IMG_0147The games that the Cognitive Development Lab plays with children are different each time, based on the different studies that are being run. Phipps is not the only source of study participants, so the study is conducted in a secluded, quiet spot where variables like noise and stimulation can be controlled. While they watch their child participate, parents are given information on the study itself to help them understand more about the research question being investigated. This is a wonderful way for parents and children to engage with the research and, as the research questions often change quickly, there are many eager return customers.

Having researchers working in public settings, like museums and libraries, is a great way to involve families in the scientific process. Through participation in studies and interaction with scientists, visitors, researchers and museums can all benefit!

If you are a museum professional and would like to learn more about a Living Lab hub near you, check out the National Living Lab Initiative.

To learn more about the research being conducted by CMU’s Child Development Lab, check out their great website; there is also information for parents if you are local to Pittsburgh and would like to participate.

The above photos of the CMU Cognitive Development Lab team were taken by our photography intern, Cory Doman.


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