In East Hall Saturday, researchers, graduate students, undergraduate students and community members examined research findings in child development during the University of Michigan’s first annual Living Lab Symposium.

First established at the Boston Museum of Science in 2004 by museum professionals and child development researchers, the Living Lab studies behavioral and cognitive development in children.

Housed in the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, the University’s Museum of Natural History and the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, Ann Arbor’s version of the Living Lab invites families with children to participate in short studies and experiments, which examine children’s behavior and contribute to larger research projects.

Living Lab Director Craig Smith brought the project to the University in 2012. He said the lab’s research is crucial to better understanding children.

“We can impact the way that we interact with children and the way that we try to improve their lives only when we actually go beyond our intuition about kids and test ideas,” he said.

Smith said the purpose of the symposium was to share the program’s findings with the greater community, specifically those who have participated in studies.

“The thing I think is most important about this is trying to give back a little bit,” he said. “As development researchers, we rely heavily on the willingness of families to have their kids come and chat with us and take part in our activities. One of the of things that’s true about a lot of the academic world is that what we end up finding never makes it back to those people that helped us out.”

Studies in the program are overseen by faculty members, but are primarily designed by doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows.

In one segment of the symposium, program researchers — mostly Ph.D. students — gave brief presentations of their recent work.

Margaret Echelbarger, a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology, presented her findings on children as developing consumers and discussed the factors her studies show children consider to make choices. She said explaining and discussing this information with the public is a unique opportunity in her field to disseminate study findings quickly.

“It’s often the case that when we conduct research, it takes a while,” she said. “Then, it takes a while to publish that research, and then maybe it gets picked up by the popular press. So this is a very easy way for us to be out in the community, not only working with families and children collecting our data, but also disseminating our findings just through casual conversation about research.”

In addition to Ph.D. students, more than 100 undergraduate students help with program studies. Generally these are Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program students, students enrolled in courses like Psychology 326, a faculty-directed independent study opportunity or others who just want research experience.

Five undergraduate students participated in the symposium’s student panel including LSA senior Daniel Hartlep, who is studying psychology and got involved with Living Lab last summer. He is currently in Psychology 326, in which he has been gathering and analyzing data at the Hands-On Museum’s Living Lab on children’s conception of the acceptability of revenge.

Hartlep said he feels that often children’s abilities are underestimated, but these studies help researchers and the public to understand them better.

“Even though it’s hard to get kids to talk about things — it’s hard for them to conceptualize what they’re thinking — through these tasks we can get really good insight into how they think about things and how they reason,” he said. “One of my favorite things is if you ask a kid, ‘Is this right or is this wrong?’ they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s really not that simple.’ It’s so cool to see kids as young as eight making that distinction where it’s not black and white.” 

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