Liz Bonawitz, Patrick Shafto and Vanessa LoBue have at least one thing in common: Their research focuses on the intricacies of how children learn. They also see the maker movement as an opportunity to explore such questions.
In 2016, the trio fused those passions by teaming up on a two-year $300K National Science Foundation (NSF) grant—along with a $75K Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) Chancellor’s SEED grant—to create a Mobile Maker Center (MMC) to deepen their understanding of this important topic, connecting them with diverse communities in Greater Newark while bolstering STEM learning.
Recently, their vision came to life at the Newark Museum, the inaugural stop for their custom-designed 12-foot-by-12-foot mobile play and research center. It’s constructed of giant Legos, equipped with a state-of-the-art videocamera and motion-detector system connected to computers that crunch troves of real-time data of children and parents playing—and creating.
“Kids are natural makers, constantly discovering and learning by playing in their environment, the very things that underlie making in adulthood,” says Bonawitz, an assistant professor of psychology specializing in cognitive development and computational modeling. “We’re interested in how kids’ play supports broader STEM making in our lifetime, and the role that emotion plays in their learning.”
To explore these, Bonawitz teamed up with Schafto, the Henry Rutgers Term Chair in Data Science, who specializes in machine learning, and LoBue, a developmental psychologist who focuses on how emotion affects learning in young children and infants.
The project requires streams of continuous data, says Bonawitz, which Shafto will oversee, but gathering it in such volume is difficult when working with kids. Researchers can ask adult participants to respond to a dozen, or even hundreds, of questions. With young children, they usually get only one chance at an answer before the child moves on to something else. Automating their data collection with computers, in ways that are methodologically sound, is therefore key to the trio's research.
“That’s the only way to bring rigorous mathematical models to this work, says Bonawitz. “Removing this data limitation is critical to testing the predictions of our models and developing our scientific theories of learning. And we can do a much better job registering the emotional reactions of the children—and coding things like facial expressions—to study how emotion affects learning, which Vanessa [LoBue] has expertise in.”
Working with a diverse population is also crucial to their study. That's where the Newark Museum comes in. Because the makers lab is mobile, the researchers can bring it out into the community, connecting with a larger sample of folks who might otherwise not come into their on-campus lab.
According to Bonawitz, having a representative sample from which they can reliably generalize makes for better science. And it gives more families a chance to participate in the mobile making center and learn more about the team’s research.
The trio also will share their rich data set with the broader developmental science community on the NSF-funded databrary.org, which promotes data sharing, archiving and reuse among researchers who study human development.
“With this project, we’re tackling important research questions, introducing methodological innovation, and working with under-researched and under-represented communities who might best stand to benefit from early STEM interventions,” says Bonawitz. “Were happy to be doing this work.”