Sciencenter and Cornell University Research on Early Childhood Cognition

April 20th, 2015

This article was co-written by Sciencenter staff Michelle Kortenaar, Director of Education, and Alli Sribarra, Grant Administrator.

Three years ago, the Sciencenter, a hands-on science museum in Ithaca, New York, was approached by researchers from Cornell University’s Early Childhood Cognition Lab (ECC Lab) who were in search of a real-world setting in which to study the processes by which children learn about cause and effect.

The Sciencenter turned out to be a perfect place to find young subjects for researchers, a clear benefit to the ECC Lab. But, how would the collaboration benefit the Sciencenter and its guests? For families visiting the museum, the immediate benefit has been watching the process of scientific research, meeting real scientists and having their questions answered at a “living” exhibit. In the ECC Lab, parents bringing their children to participate in studies have an idea of what to expect, and most participants understand the importance of research in cognitive development. In contrast, at the Sciencenter, research assistants often engage families in a discussion about the importance of research and the benefits to participation. They also need to explain the specific research and findings to non-participants.

Developing a Partnership

Since early 2012, the partnership between Cornell’s ECC Lab and the Sciencenter has grown, most notably with our SENCER-ISE project. As mentioned in a previous CAISE blog post, the Sciencenter and Cornell’s ECC Lab partnered to be one of nine other projects whose goal is to engage undergraduate students in a compelling civic issue through research and informal science education. Through this project, undergraduate researchers engage more fully with the parents/caregivers, and learn to explain their research in accessible ways.

The civic issue our partnership is focused on is helping parents and other caregivers learn the science of cognitive development so that young children have the best learning environments possible. There is a gap between what researchers know about early childhood cognitive development and how some parents, caregivers and educators interact with the children in their care. We see evidence of this knowledge gap every day as parents and caregivers interact with their children at the Sciencenter’s exhibits.

Giving parents the tools and confidence to encourage their children’s scientific exploration and engaging parents and caregivers in current research in cognitive development is particularly important during early childhood, a time of rapid development. By age three, for example, children have already learned 50% of what they will eventually know as adults. Young brains start pruning neural connections that go unused at age four, and—remarkably—children’s brains are 90% fully developed by age five. We believe that giving parents confidence with science will help create the best learning environments possible for young children and set the stage for future learning.

Doing Research and Engaging the Public

As part of the SENCER-ISE project, undergraduates from the ECC Lab have helped develop and test signs to display throughout the Sciencenter to encourage parents and children to make connections between exhibits and other areas of their lives through the use of common vocabulary. In our first set of exhibit signs, we are looking at the ways parents and children build categories around “water.”

In addition, undergraduate and graduate students have presented the results of their research at workshops for families with children enrolled in Head Start, and at professional development workshops for Head Start teachers.

Through the use of these tools and as a result of the workshops, parents have come to understand some of the research into early childhood cognitive development and how they can support their children’s learning in developmentally appropriate ways. In turn, undergraduate researchers have had the opportunity to apply their theoretical learning about early childhood cognition in an informal science education setting, creating richer learning experiences for them as scientists.

This SENCER-ISE project has had success, for the Sciencenter staff, parents and children who visit, and for the undergraduate students. Undergraduates working on this project report that they have found the experience to be “immensely rewarding.” Reflections from the students specifically mention the growth they’ve experienced in being able to apply research from the Early Childhood Cognition Lab in a real-world setting.


Undergraduate students have helped to facilitate programs for adults both at the museum and off-site that highlight research while promoting children’s hands-on exploration. Our evaluation of this project has focused on the outcomes for parents and caregivers of young children. Since 2014, 422 adults have attended workshops at the Sciencenter and 61 have attended workshops at Head Start sites. Parents have said that they “gained the realization of how a child thinks about science” and a better understanding of “the importance of asking open-ended questions” to encourage exploration.

Researchers from the ECC Lab have collected data on the conversations that parents and children engage in as they explore the Sciencenter and notice the “water” signs. Overall, they have found that “parents and children engaged in meaningful and purposeful play at the water exhibits, especially when their children are younger than five years old.” “Parents were also likely to ask their children causal and predictive questions, as well as offer causal explanations in response to their children’s questions.” Their results also indicated that, “while parents and children engaged with exhibit materials, they rarely noticed the signs.” This is why in the second year of the grant, we have introduced a “scavenger hunt” to prime the children to search for the signs. The data being collected about these exhibits is currently being further analyzed by Tamar Kushnir, associate professor and director of the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at Cornell.

Next Steps

Undergraduate and graduate researchers will continue to conduct research on the Sciencenter’s floor in addition to the more in-depth tool and workshop development that has taken place as part of our SENCER-ISE project. Both partners have used this project to think about new ways to involve each other in deepening experiences for undergraduates at the ECC Lab and for guests at the Sciencenter. For example, in order to improve the communication between researchers and Sciencenter guests, educators from the Sciencenter have led workshops in communicating science at monthly ECC Lab meetings.

As a result of this project, we are confident that the undergraduate students see the topic of early childhood development not only as something they are researching, but also as one of civic importance. In turn, we at the Sciencenter are committed to integrating current research into exhibits, programming and other outreach in ways that improve the learning environments for the young children in our community. We have been honored to be a part of the SENCER-ISE project and look forward to continuing this work.