Fargo, N.D. –– On a late fall afternoon, an 8-month-old baby is the focus of attention at the Infant Cognitive Development Lab at NDSU.
The child sits on her mother’s lap facing what looks like a puppet stage. A researcher behind the stage pokes a large green block through an opening and rotates it 180-degrees, making a sound every time the corner of the block hits the table. Other researchers observe and record how the baby responds. The baby’s reaction will be part of a study looking at whether auditory cues affect how babies process what they see. Conclusions of the study may ultimately be used by early childhood specialists, pediatricians, parents and others who are interested in helping children learn, said researcher Rebecca Woods, assistant professor of human development and family science.
Woods opened NDSU’s Infant Cognitive Development lab in January 2009. Since then, more than 900 children ages 4-23 months have contributed to study results published in peer-reviewed journals. The lab, which runs on grant money Woods secures, operates about 35 hours a week. A $179,000 National Institute of Health grant through NDSU’s Center for Visual and Cognitive Neuroscience, for example, is funding studies on how infants process what they see.
The lab is staffed by manager Jena Schuler, a 2011 NDSU graduate, and 16 NDSU undergraduate and graduate students. Students help run the lab, create stimuli, recruit and test babies. Some students are fulfilling field experience requirements for their degrees, while other students are paid employees. Schuler started working in the lab as part of her child development major. “What I like about infancy research is that you have to be very creative,” said Schuler, who also has a psychology degree. “You can’t interview a baby to find out what they are thinking.”
Woods and her team have 14 studies in progress. “We have so many balls in the air at once because we don’t have a readily accessible group for testing,” she said, noting it can take as long as two years to collect data for a single study.
Students who work in the lab help recruit children for testing through public birth announcements and a commercial list of names. The North Dakota Department of Health also provides names of people Woods can contact once by letter. Parents who bring their children for testing receive information about the study, a certificate and a developmentally appropriate toy or item of NDSU clothing.
One of the researchers, graduate student Becky Lohse from Sheridan, Wyo., has held every position in the lab. As a supervisor, she follows every study, organizes shifts, explains studies to parents and makes sure the lab is running correctly. Working in the lab helped her identify her career goal of becoming a researcher and university professor. She is applying for NDSU’s doctoral program in developmental science. For others, such as Schuler, the research combines the excitement and importance of discovery with hands-on, practical experience. “I feel like I’m contributing information to the world,” she said.