Serious science at home

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The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on mobility and contact has prompted a group of researchers to accelerate development and launch of a website that could transform the field of cognitive development. Children Helping Science is a massive project connecting families to hundreds of online studies of developmental psychology and cognition that they can do from home.

“It sounds simple, just channeling developmental research into a single site so that we can pool participants, but in fact, it’s like the Hubble telescope of child development,” says MIT Professor Laura Schulz, who is one of six lead partners on the project. “There were telescopes before Hubble, but no common resource that allowed such a deep, focused exploration. In the same way, by aggregating participants, we can ask and answer questions that would be impossible given just the resources of individual labs. Children Helping Science is a new platform that can help us transform the field.”

Children Helping Science is ideally positioned to help researchers address key limitations of current research, while also helping parents make productive, and entertaining, use of time spent at home. One of the studies MIT has added to the site is “Your Baby the Physicist.” This study looks at whether babies understand concepts like gravity by seeing whether babies are surprised and look longer at events such as balls rolling uphill instead of down, or a dropped bottle stopping in mid-air instead of falling to the ground. Testing babies at home, online, the researchers have been able to collect an unprecedented dataset, including hundreds of babies and dozens of sessions for each baby. Data like this will allow researchers to look in much more detail at developmental continuity and conceptual change, individual differences, and the reliability of their measures.

Traditionally, developmental studies have happened at study sites, often with more time spent recruiting families and scheduling labs than actually collecting data. In practice, however, the obvious solution — moving studies online — has been challenging. Studies often need to be redesigned and re-reviewed for institutional approval.

By aggregating multiple studies in one place, Children Helping Science aims to greatly increase the number of people who participate in studies. “Finding enough children is always the greatest hurdle in a study,” says Schulz. She anticipates that having studies more easily accessible will boost participation by families who might not have time or resources to travel for studies in person, leading to study populations that more closely represent the population as a whole. Other benefits from the project could include:

access to study participants from around the world;
longitudinal studies tracking an individual’s development over time;
access to children with specific diagnoses in numbers large enough to study; and
fostering consensus on testing and analysis methods, making studies more directly comparable.

For parents, using the site is easy: From the homepage, select the age of your child to see a list of studies, then choose the studies you’re interested in. There are also studies for parents. All the activities are entirely online, so they can be done at any time of day — whenever works best for the child’s schedule.

The project welcomes any researcher to list their study. The site was created and is managed by the Parent Researcher Collaborative, led by Elizabeth Bonawitz at Rutgers University at Newark, Hyowon Gweon at Stanford University, Julian Jara-Ettinger at Yale University, Candice Mills at the University of Texas at Dallas, Laura Schulz at MIT, and Mark Sheskin at Minerva Schools.

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