Patricia Kuhl, Ph. D. Professor and Co-Director at UW I-LABS
On a video screen, a wide-eyed 6-month-old sits in a specialized chair with her head mostly encircled by a huge device that looks a bit like a salon hairdryer from Mars. She’s dwarfed by the one-ton machine, but looks curious rather than afraid, and absentmindedly tugs on a koosh ball as a pair of headphones streams various languages into her ears. This is baby Emma, and she’s a linguistic genius.
But that’s not unusual. In fact, all babies have an astounding aptitude for language learning that begins declining around age 7. That’s why Patricia Kuhl and Andy Meltzoff, the founders and directors of UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS), put Emma in this Magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine to measure her ongoing brain activity as she perceives languages. The I-LABS team is the only research group that has adapted a MEG machine for infant neuroscience.
This video of Emma’s testing is one of many that Kuhl and Meltzoff shared with the SAAS community at the school’s first on-campus Science Lecture Series on January 15. The videos and Kuhl and Meltzoff’s stories about their work were a great way for faculty, parents, and especially students to see how inspiring the tangible processes of science research can be.
Meltzoff and Kuhl have been conducting learning tests with babies and children for years, and they presented what their research has shown them about how environmental factors have a pronounced effect on early and continuing brain development, the crucial connection between identity, community and learning, and the rather miraculous ability young children have to absorb and use new information, especially linguistics—a subject Kuhl presented at TEDxRainier in 2010.
As Kuhl told the SAAS audience, three-year-olds have three times the amount of synapses in their brains as adults, and from ages 3-14 the developing brain is pruning and tailoring its connections, deciding which ones are important to keep depending on what the kid spends his or her time doing.
That’s one reason why Kuhl and Meltzoff aim to have their work—which is on the forefront of research on early learning—fuel positive changes in the way kids are educated today and foster crucial collaborations and conversations between brain scientists, educators and the public on policies of early learning education.
“One of the most impressive things about our two speakers has been their ability to not only conduct cutting edge research but to then take it out of the laboratory and share it with the broader community,” said Seattle Academy Science Department Chair Peter Clark. “It was clear from the event that they were not just there to dispense information, but to engage in discussion. This resulted in both faculty and students reaching out to them and being invited to come in for a visit to the labs or to get in touch to talk about ways to build on existing knowledge.”
After the presentations, Clark facilitated an audience discussion, with questions gathered from students who had studied their research beforehand and were delighted to have the speakers engage with them and give their opinions and views on how their research can apply to real world situations.
The Science Lecture Series was born this Fall from the Innovations Committee. Chaired by Trustee Sean O’Leary, this group of SAAS faculty and staff, parents, and Trustees, work to brainstorm new ideas and events at school, such as the Upper School Innovations Program that was launched in 2012-13. This program was recently honored with a $250,000 E.E. Ford Educational Leadership Grant to expand the current Innovations Program into a full Laboratory for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
As we look to the future of the STREAM building, we are reaching out into the large local STEM community to make connections that will enrich our community and the way our students and faculty learn and teach the sciences. We’d like to particularly thank Trustee Bard Richmond (Eli ‘19, Maxwell ‘19, Owen ‘19,) for connecting SAAS with these wonderful speakers.
“It was a wildly successful event that allowed our community, and in particular our students, to see what cutting edge research and collaboration look like,” Clark said. “More importantly, it helped students to take that next step and engage with the people doing that work, affording them the opportunity to ask questions and to be inspired.”