Youngsters become scientists and explorers when they visit the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, but now little ones can also help university researchers find the answers to profound questions about the brain and learning.
Described as a first in the Southwest, the Research and Learning Center brings national research taking place at the University of Texas at Arlington to a science venue that is already a favorite with children.
“Consider it a real extension of the UTA campus,” said Van Romans, the museum’s president. “We feel that with the graduate students here and with the professionals, who will be working with those graduate students and educators, that we have a full complement of wonderful research happening at the museum today.”
The new center was showcased to the public Tuesday when museum and UT Arlington leaders announced its opening. The partnership is guided by UTA’s Southwest Center for Mind, Brain and Education.
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Romans said education has been a mission of the museum since it started about 75 years ago.
“I think lifelong learning is key to what our mission is here at the museum,” Romans said. “This adds to that whole idea.”
How to better educate youngsters
Research at the museum will reflect UTA’s mission to learn how the mind and the brain work and how to use that knowledge to help improve education, said Marc Schwartz, director of the Southwest Center for Mind, Brain and Education.
The center is modeled after Boston’s Living Laboratory, which partners with the Museum of Science, Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University.
In Fort Worth, students from UTA or other universities partnering with the program can apply to use the research center to gather data for investigations that touch on the brain and learning, Schwartz said.
Researchers are given space at the center on Saturdays when they can enlist the help of youngsters visiting the museum.
“We get this conversation going where the community begins to understand what it’s like to begin to investigate a problem or a challenge thoroughly so that at the end, we can contribute something that is really meaningful,” Schwartz said.
‘Can I be part of your experiment?’
The initiative allows students to picture themselves in the role of researcher or scientist, said Steffen Palko, chairman of the museum’s innovation committee.
Two themes being explored now are how to help youngsters master math and how to improve the diagnosis and treatment of autistic children through robot technology.
Palko said students can ask scientists, “Can I be part of your experiment?”
Museum visitors have already been participating in some research. Youngsters could test their math knowledge through an iPad app developed by Native Brain. The education technology company develops apps aimed at helping youngsters understand math, said Michael Connell, the company’s CEO.
The center allowed “real kids” to test their math skills, Connell said.
Dan Popa, an associate professor in UTA’s College of Engineering, uses the center to see how Zeno, a small robot, interacts with children. Zeno is part of a UTA team investigating how to help with early diagnosis and treatment of autism.
Through past research, Popa has learned that by age 13, children with and without autism “have no discernible difference” in hand-eye coordination as a result of playing video games.
Researchers are investigating whether autistic children better connect and interact with the robot the longer they are exposed to it.
About 30 children filled out surveys and interacted with Zeno on Saturday, Popa said.
“This is a great way to do it,” Popa said.