An interactive new UBC psychology lab at Vancouver’s Science World aims to make science fun for kids and parents, while improving our understanding of early child development.
The new $70,000 Living Lab provides researchers with a high-tech, interactive space to conduct daily experiments for Science World’s annual 500,000 visitors, making it Canada’s largest university outreach project focused on cognitive development.
Wearing brightly coloured t-shirts emblazoned with “ask me about early childhood cognitive development,” researchers roam Science World recruiting participants for short studies that explore cognitive development and perceptual skills of children aged one to 18.
While the experiments are designed to be fun and engaging, the professor who directs the lab, Andrew Baron, UBC Dept. of Psychology, says the research explores some decidedly serious topics.
“One of the issues we explore is how children and adults develop unconscious prejudices that can lead to social conflicts,” says Baron, who joined UBC in 2010 from Harvard University. “By understanding how social preferences emerge, we can develop strategies to improve tolerance and cooperation, and ultimately, create more productive and harmonious schools, workplaces and communities.”
Studies range from how best to create positive interactions between children to the effects of competition, says Baron, 32. “Our research finds that many of the supposedly fun games that involve group competitions can actually exacerbate biases and conflicts for younger children.”
Located on Science World’s second floor, the 200-square-foot space is filled with technology designed to improve researchers’ ability to measure kids’ thoughts and cognitive processes. These include iPads, touchscreens, interactive animated video displays and high-definition cameras that measure facial and unconscious responses to stimuli by the millisecond.
Two soundproof rooms in the lab feature Skype-like computer systems, which enable children to interact with less distraction and timidity. “Many kids get shy when you put them together in a room for the first time, so this allows us to get them interacting faster and more comfortably. And the ability to record and replay conversations means we can better measure and interpret their behavior.”
After families are briefed and consent to participate in a study, they get a crash course on child development and cognitive functions. “Parents are naturally fascinated with how their kids experience the world and their physical and psychological development, so they really enjoy watching them interact with researchers,” Baron says.
Baron pioneered the living lab concept at the Boston Museum of Science while completing his PhD in psychology at Harvard. Convinced of its benefits, he flew to Vancouver a day early for his job interview at UBC to visit Science World to explore a potential partnership.
The answer was a resounding yes, says Bryan Tisdall, President and CEO, Science World. “Andrew’s project really helps to demonstrate the importance of science and technology in everyday life, one of Science World’s key goals,” he says. “Research shows that engaging boys and girls in science at a young age increases the likelihood they will pursue university courses or a career in science— that is something we very much want to promote.”
In addition to programming the Science World lab, Baron will take his community outreach a step further this year. He plans to bring his “living lab” concept of engaging kids through interactive research to B.C. elementary
schools and Aboriginal communities, a population that is underrepresented in science and university.
Baron says expanding the scope of his research subject ultimately produces better science. “Going outside the university and into the broader community provide us with a larger, more representative pool of participants,” he says. “And ultimately, that’s what we want—findings that generalize as widely as possible.”
To this end, Baron is piloting a stand-alone touch-screen kiosk at Science World where parents and children can learn about the science of cognitive development while participating in studies under their own direction. He plans to eventually place these kiosks, which look like ATMs, in public spaces across Canada.
Baron adds that his research team has conducted research with more than 7,000 children since setting up a temporary lobby workspace in Science World in June 2010. The new permanent space promises even more public interaction, he says.
“Science World is open rain or shine, seven day per week, so the pressure is definitely on to keep coming up with new, fun experiments,” he says, laughing.