Carnegie Mellon University
August 11, 2019

Language and Learning Lab Helps Develop Researchers

By Heidi Opdyke

Abby Simmons
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-6094
Jason Maderer
  • Marketing and Communications
  • 412-268-1151

In Erik Thiessen's Infant Language and Learning Lab, Carnegie Mellon University students are taking their first steps into research.

The studies are simple and fun for the subjects. While babies sit on parents' laps, they watch a computer display and listen to words or tones. But for the researcher, the work is more intense as they watch the infants' eye movements and code the findings.

"Undergraduates do the vast majority of the work in the lab," said Thiessen, a professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "Working with babies takes extensive training. You have to learn about infant eye movement to figure out what it is they are paying attention to and track it painstakingly in real time."

The lab explores learning in infancy and childhood and how infants acquire the tremendous amount of information necessary to understand language. Studies range from learning how babies can learn the words of two languages simultaneously as they grow up to seeing how quickly children can control their attention without being distracted.

Thiessen uses an apprenticeship model in which students learn every aspect of his laboratory from administrative tasks to recruiting assistant parent volunteers, to running experiments related to existing projects and finally developing their own research.

"In two or three years, they might be working on a joint venture where they've contributed significantly to the intellectual goals of a project," Thiessen said.

Audrey Goodman is a rising junior in philosophy studying linguistics, and works with Thiessen. This summer, as a part of the Undergraduate Research Office's Summer Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship program, she has been working with Thiessen to create artificial languages for use in a new project. The study will look at bilingual speakers of English and Mandarin in Pittsburgh and Beijing to understand how language backgrounds can shape the way people process stimuli.

"Audrey discovered what she knows already is really perfectly suited to doing this research project," Thiessen said. "This isn't something we would be able to do without her contribution, and the chance for her to see that she's learned can be applied in a lot of different settings has been exciting."

When Thiessen started at CMU 15 years ago, he provided detailed instructions to students about how to build experiments. What he found was if the students were provided a goal, they could create innovative solutions of their own.

"Undergraduates are really clever, motivated problem-solvers," he said.

"Carnegie Mellon incorporates research into the curriculum in a variety of ways," Thiessen said. "Some departments and majors have the expectation of undergraduate research, but it should be more widespread than it is. It's such an important part of a student developing applied skills and thinking abilities that we should be pushing for this to be part of the education whenever possible."

Throughout the year, 20-25 students may assist Thiessen with his work. Throughout the process they are learning communication skills and technical skills, such as component programming and critical thinking.

"Even if you're not going to do research for the rest of your life, you are constantly surrounded by data and you have to make decisions based on that data," Thiessen said. "Research really sharpens your training about what data can tell you and can help you answer questions in any setting."

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