Empow Summer Camp Kids Help Science

Empow Studios is pleased to have been able to help researchers at the Boston College Infant & Child Cognition Center with a research study this past summer. This week, we’re joined by Michelle Hurst, Graduate Student, to share some information about the project.

For several weeks in July and August, children at Empow Summer Camp participated in scientific research – but in a way that just felt like games, math tests, and really weird questions about dots. The research was conducted by researchers from the Infant & Child Cognition Center, a developmental psychology lab at Boston College under the direction of Dr. Sara Cordes. Our studies investigate how infants, children, and adults think about numbers and more advanced math concepts.

Every week, we sent home permission slips for the children at Empow Summer Camp and then visited the camp to have those children with signed consent forms complete our study. Given the wide range of ages at Empow, we had several different studies running for kids of different ages. All the studies looked at different things, with the underlying theme being how children think about numbers. Below I’ll tell you a little bit about each of these studies.

Investigating Sharing Behavior in Children

In this activity, we give children a number of stickers (either 12 or 30) and then give them the option to keep those stickers or to share some with other children participating in the study (either one child or two children as recipients). Children can make any decision they want about how much to share and how much to keep, and we don’t watch them make the decision.

Previous research has shown that children and adults tend to show very different sharing behavior. While adults will generally share equally most of the time, children, especially younger children, do not share equally. In fact, many young children (3 to 4 years) will not share at all, but keep most of the things you give them for themselves. What we’re interested in learning is when children begin to share equally and if certain contexts (e.g., being given more or fewer stickers) can promote or hinder more equal sharing behavior.

So far, we have found that context and age does impact sharing behavior. We find that the 3-6 year olds tend to keep either all or the majority of their stickers, but it is around ages 6-8 that children begin to share more equally among themselves and others, even though they know they can keep all the stickers for themselves. We also see that the older children (6 and up) are most responsive to changes in context, such that they will share more stickers when they are given more to start, or when there are more recipients with which to share. In fact, the oldest kids will go out of their way, much like adults, to share fairly among recipients (e.g., if they get 30 stickers and can share with 2 recipients, they’ll actually distribute 10, 10, and 10, which means they’re donating 67% of their resources!).

Investigating the Effect of Emotion on Numerical Processing

In this activity, we had children participate in one of two number games. In one version, children were shown a number of dots and asked to decide if it should be considered a small number or a large number of dots. In the other version, they were shown a set of blue and yellow dots and asked to say whether there were more blue dots or more yellow dots. In both versions, the dots are presented very quickly so that the children can’t count and, importantly, a person’s face with either an emotional expression (happy or angry) or a neutral expression is displayed briefly before the dots. We’re interested in learning how children’s perception of the number of dots changes when we show them emotional faces.

Previous research tells us that the emotional faces heighten an adult’s attention to number, causing them to underestimate the number of dots they see following emotional faces, relative to neutral faces. In these studies, we’re looking to see whether children show a similar pattern. So far, our research with kids confirms this to be the case: children also underestimate the number of dots they see after seeing emotional faces compared to neutral faces. However, kids are also showing an interesting pattern of increased precision in responding after seeing an emotional face, compared to a neutral face, which is a pattern we do not see with adults.

Investigating Rational Number Understanding in Children

At Empow, children participated in two different activities related to rational numbers (i.e., fractions, decimals, and whole numbers). In the first activity, older children participated in a number game where they had to rapidly choose which of two numbers was largest, when the numbers were fractions, decimals, or whole numbers. They also completed a grade-appropriate math test, assessing their understanding of rational numbers and algebra.

Recent evidence has suggested that not only are fractions and decimals difficult for children (and adults!) to learn, but a child’s ability to learn rational numbers seems to be related to their ability to learn algebra and more advanced math concepts. In the first study, we are further investigating the relationship between rational numbers and algebra by looking at children’s rational number understanding from different perspectives. For example, we measured children’s understanding of the magnitude “1/2”, the magnitude of “0.5”, and how they use both “1/2” and “0.5” to perform calculations (e.g., \xbd + \xbe).

In the second study, we’re interested in learning how two different, but very common, visual references – pie charts and number lines – impact how children perform on a number game involving fraction, decimal, and whole number notation. So, in this study, children also did the “choose which is larger” number game, but before that did some activities with fractions either on a pie chart or a number line to see if getting them to think about fractions in a particular way may alter the way they perform on our number task.

Both of these studies can have a great impact on math education by telling us more about how children think about rational numbers when they’re presented in different notation (i.e., fractions, decimals, and whole numbers), as well as when they’re given different visual references to use (i.e., pie charts and number lines).

On-going studies

We always have new studies on-going in our lab running with infants (as young as 5 months), children, and even teenagers and adults! Our lab, which is run by Dr. Sara Cordes, is made up of post-doctoral students, graduate students, and undergraduate students who all help to plan, design, and run new studies. However, all of our research is dependent upon having participants like you and your children! We are so appreciative to Empow Summer Camp for working with us so that we could bring these studies to the children at Empow, and to all the parents who returned permission slips and the children who participated.

In our lab at Boston College, our studies range from 5-month-old infants to 15-year-old adolescents, and even adults. We also recruit families to come into our center for a visit and participate in more studies. If you’re interested in hearing more about what we do or would like to come in for a visit, please feel free to contact us by email (BCCognition@gmail.com), by phone (617-552-8652), or check out our website (www.cordeslab.org).

A big “Thank You” to all the parents, children, and staff at Empow Summer Camp from all the members of the Infant & Child Cognition Center!

Enjoy the end of your summer and have a great time back at school!

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