Tiny volunteers help ASU lab study curiosity

screenshot of a Zoom meeting with a young child


Building a baby lab is no small feat, though its subjects may have some (small feet, that is). It’s a fact that was only reinforced when the pandemic forced ASU psychology Assistant Professor Kelsey Lucca and her intrepid staff to transition their nascent Emerging Minds Lab from in-person experiments to a completely online format over the past year.

Much of the lab’s team is made up of ASU alumni, undergraduates and research staff students who were just as excited about their research as they were that it meant interacting with chubby-cheeked little ones every day.

“When they joined the lab, they wanted to interact with kids,” said Lucca, who serves as its director. “This is not that, and it’s been a really challenging time, but they have adapted so well. They’ve shown incredible resiliency, and have really risen to the challenge.”

The challenge, as it were, involved adapting experiments designed for a lab setting to something parents could do at home with their children, which researchers could still guide and observe remotely.

“It happened so fast,” said Sarah Kiefer, project coordinator for the lab and an alum of ASU’s psychology program. “Dr. Lucca had me take home a laptop to work from home, just in case, and that was the last day I saw her before everything shut down.”

During those first weeks of lockdown, Kiefer and lab manager Vanessa Lazaro worked together, combing online forums and listservs for strategies and resources to keep their experiments going virtually.

Each of them faced unique issues with the individual projects they were overseeing.

For “Aquatic Adventures,” a project involving children ages 3 1/2 to 6 actively exploring a curated environment, Kiefer and her team of students were able to recreate the environment in an online format. For “Ready, Set, Play!,” a project involving children ages 10 to 24 months interacting with a variety of toys, Lazara and her team of students ended up mailing a care package with toys to participating families.

They also relied a lot on the help of the parents, to whom they sent detailed instructions for how to set up the space in their home in which the experiment would be conducted, as well as instructions for how to allow the researchers into the space via Zoom.

Once the families had the tools they needed, Kiefer and Lazaro were able to run some pilot tests to ensure the experiments would indeed be feasible with the new virtual setup.

baby in a high chair smiling

Young participant of the Emerging Minds Lab's "Ready, Set, Play!" study. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Lucca.

“It was all about finding the best ways to transition all of these very active components and elements of the in-person studies to an online format and still be fun and engaging for the families,” Lazaro said. “This is really a collaboration between us and the families. We're working together to contribute to developmental science as a whole.”

And the field of developmental science is one that could use some contributions.

“There really has not been a lot of systematic, scientific study of curiosity during infancy and toddlerhood,” Lucca said. “For a long time, it was thought that infants didn’t even have the prerequisite skills to be curious.”

Metacognition is a term that describes one’s awareness and understanding of their own thought processes. It’s how adults are able to realize what they don’t know so that they can attempt to fill that gap. In recent years, Lucca said, scientists have been discovering that babies and toddlers actually do have metacognition and the ability to seek out information when they don't know something.

Experiments that have compared babies’ responses to simply being acknowledged when they expressed interest in an unfamiliar object to babies’ responses when they were given more information about the unfamiliar object found that babies who were only acknowledged but not given more information continued to point and vocalize, which is interpreted as their way of communicating that they want to know more.

And there’s a lot of value in understanding what prompts that kind of a reaction.

“Curiosity is one of the strongest predictors of academic success, as well as positive life outcomes more broadly,” Lucca said. “The more curious you are, the more likely you are to report higher life satisfaction, better earnings, better job outcomes … It even shows up in relationships and has been shown to be related to healthy aging. So curiosity is really important throughout the lifespan.”

The only problem is, as we age, we lose much of that natural instinct to question the world around us. Lucca paraphrased an idea from UC Berkeley Professor Alison Gopnik's book "The Philosophical Baby," which compares a baby’s attention to a lantern: They are broadly interested in everything. As we get older, our attention becomes more like a spotlight, zeroing in on the things we’re good at or have a specific interest in.

“It’s a trade-off we make,” she said. “But if we can design experiments that help us to gain a better understanding of how infants and young children learn about the world around them, we can better equip parents and caregivers with the tools they need to help them thrive.”

group photo of the staff of ASU's Emerging Minds Lab

The researchers of ASU's Emerging Minds Lab, including lab director Kelsey Lucca (far left), lab manager Vanessa Lazaro (second from left) and project coordinator Sarah Kiefer (fourth from left). Photo courtesy of the Emerging Minds Lab (taken before current face covering requirements).

While conducting those experiments over the internet isn’t ideal, the staff of the Emerging Minds Lab has found that there are some benefits.

“There is a unique challenge with working with kids online,” said Kalie Scirpo, psychology undergraduate and Barrett, The Honors College student. “It can be hard to keep their attention, which is something that takes practice and patience. But it's also kind of fun to see them in their own environments, and we’re able to measure their behavior in a real-world context.”

Scirpo is one of several undergrads who do research in the Emerging Minds Lab. As a researcher on the “Aquatic Adventures” project, Scirpo is gaining invaluable knowledge that she’s putting to use for her honor’s thesisScirpo received funding from Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University for her honor's thesis., which will look at how parents’ language influences their children’s strategies to search for information.

“Undergrads are the heart and soul of our lab,” Lucca said. “They do it all. They’re not just entering data into a computer. They design experiments, conduct tests with families, analyze data, write things up … They’re an essential part of the lab, and I think they have fun doing it.”

They’re not the only ones. One of the most enjoyable parts of the job for Kiefer and Lazaro is interacting with the parents of the children. After every experiment, they debrief the parents and field any questions they may have.

“Parents have the best questions, and the best ideas too,” Kiefer said.

And by way of gratitude for their participation, compensation is provided in the form of toys, gift cards and activity bundles. The lab is always recruiting babies, toddlers and young children for their studies, and Lucca encourages anyone interested in participating to sign up through the lab’s website.

Video by Rob Ewing of the ASU Psychology Department.

Top photo: Young participant of the ASU Emerging Minds Lab's virtual "Aquatic Adventures" study. Photo courtesy of Sarah Kiefer

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