Language Sciences Come to Life at COSI
By Ben Lewis
Combining the natural interest many people have in language with engaging hands-on experiments has been a winning formula for the Language Sciences Pod - one of three pods that comprise the Labs in Life exhibit, a partnership between Ohio State and COSI that provides the public with a chance to watch and participate in real research as it happens.
"Lots of people have a fascination for language, they notice little tiny details about other people's speech patterns," said Shari Speer, chair and professor of linguistics and research director of the Language Sciences Pod. "So you can hook them into scientific observation and categorization and all the things that we do in science pretty easily when you start talking to them about language."
One of the goals of the Labs in Life exhibit is to show the public that science isn't just an output, but that science is a process, said Laura Wagner, associate professor of psychology and director of the Language Sciences Pod.
"At COSI the participants are volunteers and are excited to participate," she said. "So when they are doing their studies they are really thinking about it, they're paying attention and reading it all. They're interested in science."
Enhanced Scholarship Opportunities
Wagner says conducting language research at COSI has also provided Ohio State faculty with resources that they might not otherwise have had access to. In fact, since the lab opened in autumn 2012, 12 faculty/senior researchers from five departments have collected data on more than 20 studies (see an example below), involving more than 5,300 visitors as research participants. Additionally, nine scholarly papers have already been presented and/or been accepted for presentation or publication.
"We get great data out of this. COSI gives us an opportunity to collect data from a more diverse group of people," Wagner said. "It gives us access to a larger variety and number of participants than we were getting on Ohio State's campus. The resources here do a lot of good for a lot of people. We're able to help people really improve their research programs because of access to the participant pool and access to the resources they need to get their research done."
Speer said that because of the pod's success, the demand for conducting research there has grown so much that they now need to schedule time well in advance to accommodate faculty interest. A $60,000 Engagement Impact Grant from the Office of Outreach and Engagement in 2013, with matching funds from the Office of Research and the College of Arts and Sciences, helped expand the research and education opportunities at the pod.
Students Play a Key Role
Along with the faculty, Ohio State students are very involved in the lab's operation.
Wagner said it's exciting to watch students, many of whom take a course to prepare them to work at COSI, come into their own during their time at the lab.
"Kids at COSI ask students, 'Are you a scientist?' since they are wearing lab coats," she said. "The students get caught off guard, but it is a great moment of self-realization for students that they are scientists, since they didn't think of themselves that way."
Emily Behm, a senior majoring in speech and hearing science, has worked in the lab for more than a year and has had the opportunity to run multiple experiments.
"It's given me a real sense of what it is like to conduct research," she said. "I didn't really know anything about research prior to doing this. It takes a lot of dedication and a lot of work. It's really been awesome."
Behm said the knowledge she has gained from interacting with the community at COSI has been an additional benefit to the experience she gets in the lab.
"I learn a lot from the people that are there too because of the wide variety of ages and diverse backgrounds," she said. "The community members can teach Ohio State students things they wouldn't be able to get in a classroom of peers."
Speer said that turning the students into teachers enables them to take their learning to another level.
"If you want to find out if you really understand something, you should teach it to more than one person. Different people will ask different questions about different aspects of what they're learning, and the students get that experience of explaining language science (at COSI)," she said.
What do a monkey, a truck and a tree have to do with language science? Quite a bit when they're part of a study run by Ohio State faculty and students at the Language Sciences Pod at COSI.
As one of more than 20 studies conducted in the language pod, participants in the eye-tracking study are read a phrase and asked to act it out with a variety of objects. The study has found that small differences in language can make a big difference in actions. For instance, if the phrase is, "The monkey was riding on the truck to the tree" participants eyes move to the truck sooner than if the phrase is, "The monkey rode on the truck to the tree."
"The 'ing' makes you focus on ongoing action - in this case the vehicle the monkey can ride on. As soon as they hear the 'ing' form their eyes go to the vehicles. So the model they are building is action-oriented," said Laura Wagner, associate professor of psychology and director of the Language Sciences Pod. "When you say 'rode' you don't get that. Participants look at the vehicles later and they don't spend as much time on them. What's exciting for us is that a tiny little piece of language will guide your attention within milliseconds."
For more information, visit http://buckeyelanguagenetwork.osu.edu/LanguagePod.php.
Laura Wagner, firstname.lastname@example.org
Shari Speer, email@example.com