Playing in a Hi-Tech Sandbox

Andrew Baron

The second floor of Science World in Vancouver is now home to the Living Lab, full of technology that researchers will use to further our understanding of early childhood cognitive development. Professor Andrew Baron’s team finds consenting families from among Science World’s 500,000 visitors a year to take part in short studies in the lab. Not only does the arrangement allow researchers to collect plenty of data from a ready supply of volunteers, it’s an opportunity to present science as fun activity for youngsters and provides some fascinating insights for parents, who are briefed about the research before giving their consent. “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,” says Baron, who joined UBC’s Department of Psychology in 2010 from Harvard University, where he completed his PhD.

The children interact with iPads, touchscreens, and video displays and their responses are captured on camera for later interpretation in order to learn more about their cognitive processes. A better understanding may help explain how certain human perceptions and behaviours develop. “One of the issues we explore is how children and adults develop unconscious prejudices that can lead to social conflicts,” says Baron. “By understanding how preferences emerge, we can develop strategies to improve tolerance and cooperation, and ultimately create more productive and harmonious schools, workplaces and communities.”

Baron pioneered this approach with a similar lab in the Boston Museum of Science and was so encouraged by its success he approached Science World even before his move to UBC. Baron also plans to introduce a program of interactive research to BC high schools and Aboriginal communities to help engage young people in science and encourage career aspirations in the field. He is also introducing touch-screen kiosks at Science World that parents and kids can use by themselves to learn more about the science of cognitive development and participate in some studies. Baron would like to cast the net wider by placing kiosks around the country. “Going outside the university and into the broader community provides us with a larger, more representative pool of participants,” he says. So far, the team has conducted research with about 7,000 children.

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