Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Scientists usually don't hear "Oooo, it's a scientist!" when they arrive at work.

But lately such enthusiasm has greeted researchers from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences who have taken their work out of the lab and into public.

Once a week for the past few months, a trio of I-LABS researchers has been collecting data at a "mobile lab" set up at KidsQuest Children’s Museum in Bellevue, Washington.                                             

It may seem like an odd match – a loud, bustling children's museum as a venue for lab research. But it's actually a well-suited pairing between inquisitive museum-goers and scientists eager to communicate science with the public.

"Being able to engage in conversation with visitors of all ages about the science of cognitive development is a very unusual opportunity for us," said Dario Cvencek, an I-LABS research scientist. "We are grateful for this experience."

Cvencek studies the development of stereotypes in children. At KidsQuest, he adapted some of his research methods for use in the museum.

It's part of KidsQuest's Living Laboratory, funded by the National Science Foundation as a way to educate the public about child development research. The program is meant to benefit the public and researchers alike, by showing museum-goers science in action and by giving scientists a chance to collect data from children visiting the museum.

"The Living Laboratory model provides a unique format for getting families thinking about science in a new way," said Alison Luk, associate director of education at KidsQuest. "The program starts conversations and provides a unique real-world experience with science."

The experiment that I-LABS researchers have been doing at KidsQuest is about how children develop an understanding of gender roles, including gender-related stereotypes.

"Most adults in America hold the stereotype that the pursuit of math-intensive careers is more suitable for males than for females," Cvencek said. "In our research at KidsQuest, we are beginning to investigate the developmental roots of this pervasive stereotype."

The researchers use a computerized sorting task, known as the Implicit Association Test, to measure children's automatic association between concepts.

"It's exciting to be able to interact with so many people in such a short time," said Craig Maddox, a research study assistant at I-LABS who's been involved in the KidsQuest research. "We're helping to educate kids and their families on what we study."


At KidsQuest, the I-LABS Living Laboratory booth includes a couple of tables and chairs with a laptop set up ready for children to do the experimental task. The team does one 2-hour session each week, on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Lily Shafer, an I-LABS outreach assistant, and Ursala Schwenn, a UW research study coordinator, also help with the KidsQuest booth.

As families tour the museum, the researchers ask if they want to help with a science project. That's when the "Ooo, it's a scientist!" comment typically happens – a parent sees the I-LABS booth and encourages their child to check out the experiment.

The youngsters take a seat with one of the researchers, who leads them through the experiment where they have to press different buttons in response to a series of word pairs. They have to respond as quickly as they can. It takes about 10 minutes for each child to finish.

Some of the younger kiddos are happy just to sit and press the buttons.

In the busy museum, sometimes children have to wait for others to complete the experiment. Coloring sheets with brains and neuroscience facts keep children busy as they wait.

As they color, Shafer asks the children about their brains. If she asks them where their brain is, they often point to their chests and not their heads.


"It helps me think," is the most common answer children give when Shafer asks what the brain does. On the coloring worksheet, she'll point to the prefrontal cortex and say that it helps you remember to brush your teeth, whereas the occipital lobe for vision helps us see colors.                                             

"They think it's interesting because at this age they haven't specifically learned about how their brain works and how important it is in their daily life," Shafer said. “I love talking to them about brain science, and their questions give me new ways to think about our work."

Kiddos get an "I Helped A Scientist Sticker" in return for their time.

The research team has logged about 375 visitors – children and their families – to their KidsQuest booth since the project began in January. It wrapped up in May.

As for how parents are responding to the project, one mother explained, "We'll be back the next time the [Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences] is! It was awesome, interesting!"


Photos courtesy of Merrill Images and I-LABS' Ursala Schwenn.