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Driverless shuttle to deliver rides at UW–Madison April 24–25  external link

A group of University of Wisconsin–Madison students piles into an 11-seat vehicle, opting for a smooth shuttle ride up Observatory Drive instead of a long walk to the Sewell Social Sciences Building.

The vehicle steadily treks eastward at about 15 mph, following its high-definition base map and watching out for obstacles with lidar sensors rather relying on a driver — because there isn’t one.

While that remains a hypothetical scenario at the moment, it’s one that could become a reality in the not-too-distant future as part of the array of autonomous and connected vehicle research emerging from the UW–Madison College of Engineering.

Photo: Driverless vehicle in front of parking garage

The Navya autonomous shuttle was on campus in November 2017 for a public viewing. Photo: Renee Meiller

The college, which is leading the federally designated Wisconsin Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds collaboration (WiscAV), will host one such autonomous vehicle on campus April 24 and 25. Members of the public can ride in an Autonom Shuttle, made by the French company Navya, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. both days. Rides will start outside the west side of Russell Laboratories, 1630 Linden Drive, and follow a loop covering parts of Linden, Elm, Observatory and Babcock drives.

Researchers from the College of Engineering will be on hand to discuss their work and the latest developments in an evolving industry.

“A big part of our work as the proving grounds — especially as a more public-based, university-based proving grounds compared to the private test tracks — is getting people comfortable with this new technology that’s coming very, very fast, whether agencies or regulators are ready for it or not,” says Peter Rafferty, a program manager in the Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory and one of the leaders of WiscAV.

Graphic: Map of where to go for ride

Rides will start outside the west side of Russell Laboratories, 1630 Linden Drive, and follow a loop covering parts of Linden, Elm, Observatory and Babcock drives.

Rafferty and researchers in the TOPS Laboratory are helping drive autonomous and connected vehicle research through projects like a partnership with the City of Madison to test connected vehicle technology on South Park Street. The laboratory also houses a full-scale driving simulator.

But work in the area involves researchers from across the College of Engineering and the UW–Madison campus.

For example, mechanical engineering professor Dan Negrut conducts high-resolution vehicle dynamics simulations. Industrial and systems engineering professor John Lee studies human adaptation to and interaction with automated vehicles.

David Noyce, transportation engineering professor and TOPS Laboratory director, and civil and environmental engineering professor Bin Ran are developing new technologies for connected and automated vehicles, and are considering the safety aspects of autonomous transportation. Noyce and Ran are also leading UW–Madison’s recently established research collaboration with Southeast University in Nanjing, China.

Meanwhile, other UW–Madison researchers are investigating related topics such as agricultural applications, artificial intelligence, liability, public perception, urban planning and more.

“A big part of our work as the proving grounds … is getting people comfortable with this new technology that’s coming very, very fast, whether agencies or regulators are ready for it or not.”

Peter Rafferty

“Autonomous and connected vehicles are going to transform society,” says Jon Riehl, a researcher in the TOPS Laboratory. “So our work here is a perfect example of the Wisconsin Idea in action.”

American Family Insurance, a longtime supporter of UW–Madison, is among the lead sponsors for the event, along with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and UW–Madison Transportation Services.

“As autonomous and connected vehicle technology advances, it will have a tremendous impact on the customers and communities we serve,” says Nyra Jordan, American Family’s director overseeing the company’s corporate responsibility and sustainability efforts. “It’s critical that the experience is safe for users, which is part of the reason this research is so important. This technology will enhance the future of mobility and reduce the environmental impacts associated with transportation. It’s an exciting collaboration with UW–Madison.”

AAA Wisconsin, Green Cab Madison, the TOPS Laboratory, the City of Madison and Schmidt’s Auto are also providing funding for Navya’s visit to campus.

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Research in the Rotunda  external link

UW-Madison students shared their research findings with legislators, state leaders, UW alumni and others during Research in the Rotunda on April 11 at the Wisconsin State Capitol. The outreach event allows students and faculty advisors from across the UW System to connect and spread their knowledge.

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Tribal forests in Wisconsin are more diverse, sustainable  external link

Don Waller first visited the forests managed by the Menominee Nation in the 1980s while studying the effects of deer on seedling growth. He was immediately impressed. The forests seemed more mature and healthy than those outside of the Menominee reservation in northern Wisconsin.

But it took more than 25 years, and collaboration with Nicholas Reo, a professor of environmental science at Dartmouth College and a member of the Ojibwe tribe, for Waller to rigorously study the forests managed by the Menominee and Ojibwe tribes in Wisconsin.

Photo: White-tailed deer in a forest

Don Waller and Nicholas Reo found that many of the differences between tribal and nontribal forests can be traced back to the lower density of deer on the tribal lands. Photo: Pixabay

Reo and Waller, a professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, report in a recent issue of the journal Ecology and Society that the Native American-managed forests in Wisconsin host more mature stands of trees, greater diversity of plant species and more sustainable conditions than nearby nontribal forests. Many of the differences — such as the ability of tree seedlings to survive to maturity — can be traced back to the lower density of deer on the tribal lands.

“Solid evidence for what these differences are can teach us something important about what we need to learn about managing forest land,” says Waller.

Photo: Don Waller

Don Waller

The researchers examined the four largest Indian reservations in Wisconsin, which include the Menominee reservation and the three Ojibwe reservations: Bad River, Lac du Flambeau and Lac Courtes Oreilles. As comparisons, they gathered data on nearby state and federal forests, adjacent deer management areas, and information like housing density in nearby communities. Using both historical and newly collected data, the researchers assessed tree and deer populations, the diversity of understory vegetation and the survival rates of tree seedlings, which regenerate mature trees.

While the tribal and nontribal forests featured similar mixes of evergreen and deciduous trees, the tribal forests stored more carbon in larger, more mature trees. The reservations also maintained their diversity of understory plants over a half century as that diversity dropped, in some cases steeply, in nearby state forests and other land. That loss of native plant diversity was accompanied by an increase in invasive species in federal forests, likely caused in part by greater road density in nontribal lands, as roads provide routes for exotic species to invade.

Photo: Map of areas of study


The research areas of the current study, with tribe-managed lands outlined in pink. The underlying map shows the density of trees in northern Wisconsin. The boundary of territories ceded to the U.S. government by the Ojibwe tribe are marked with a dotted line. Don Waller

The tribal forests also hosted 25 percent to 50 percent fewer deer per acre, which was associated with an increased survival rate for seedlings of several tree species, which deer tend to browse. Those seedlings in turn help regenerate trees that are logged.

“Deer are acting like a keystone species here,” says Waller. “It’s not a minor effect. It’s not affecting one or a few species. It’s not affecting one or a few sites. It’s not a temporary effect. These are pervasive, long-lasting effects that are actually shifting Wisconsin plant communities outside the Indian reservations into another state — a state of lower diversity, of different composition, more invasives.”

Photo: Trees in Gov. Thompson State Park

The researchers compared tribal forests with nearby state and federal forests, adjacent deer management areas, and information like housing density in nearby communities. Photo: Good Free Photos

Although different hunting practices between tribal and nontribal forests might account for differences in deer populations, the habitat matters too, says Waller. Deer thrive in the edges between habitats, as occur around clear-cut portions of nontribal forests. More selectively logged tribal forests, with fewer roads and houses, provide fewer edges.

Waller says that Wisconsin provided the ideal conditions for conducting this study. Relatively large Native American reservations have been managed here for a considerable period of time — the Menominee have managed their forest for over 160 years. And historical data, such as that provided by UW–Madison plant ecologist John Curtis in the 1940s and 1950s, provided the necessary context with which to view today’s forests.

“We have the information here. We have historical data, and we have these land bases that differ conspicuously now in ecological conditions,” says Waller. “So let’s learn from what these data can tell us.”

This work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (grants DEB-0717315 and DEB-DoB 1046355).

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Undergraduate Symposium shows value of mentorship  external link

Students present research projects to attendees at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in 2016 The annual event showcases student-led research, creative endeavors and service-learning projects. Photo: Bryce Richter

The annual Undergraduate Symposium is an opportunity for students to show what they’ve learned — think of it as a show-and-tell at the college level. But an important part of that learning has been made possible through students having a strong mentor.

Now in its 20th year, the event takes place Friday, April 13, at Union South and showcases undergraduate creativity, achievement, research, service-learning and community-based research from all areas of study at UW-Madison, including the humanities, fine arts, biological sciences, physical sciences and social sciences. This year nearly 600 students will present, display or perform their work for members of the university, the surrounding community, family, friends and the mentors who have helped them along the way.

Sanober Mirza will be presenting her Senior Honors Thesis at the Undergraduate Symposium, on how tropical forest secondary succession on abandoned pastures influences variation in nitrogen cycling.

Sanober Mirza will be presenting her Senior Honors Thesis work on how tropical forest secondary succession on abandoned pastures influences variation in nitrogen cycling. She has been working with Professor Erika Marin-Spiotta since she began college, working in her lab through the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program.

“She has been the best mentor I could ask for because she has constantly pushed and guided me in the research process, our specific research topics, presentation skills, personal growth, community engagement, and much more,” Mirza says. “She has also encouraged me to ask questions and apply for many competitive grants to fund my own work. She really helped propel me into independent research and has trusted me to work on projects for her while also conducting work of my own.”

In her sophomore year, they came up with a project after Mirza found an interest in how nitrogen processes change throughout succession and how human activities, such as deforestation, can affect them. Marin-Spiotta has expertise in tropical nutrient cycling and biodiversity, so her guidance helped Mirza develop the project and find the right resources.

“I think a lot of discussions about climate change have a focus on carbon cycling. However, I hope one take-away from my presentation is that nitrogen plays an extremely important role in the global climate,” Mirza says. “Since the focus of my work is secondary succession on abandoned pastures, I hope people learn about different ways human activity is affecting nutrient cycling so they can critically think about how actions they take can support more sustainable practices.”

Mirza recently took on a mentor role as a teaching fellow for the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, which helped her get involved in Marin-Spiotta’s lab in the first place. She’s enjoying the experience and is interested in continuing this role throughout her career, and she plans on mentoring students from underserved communities.

“I think it is critical for a good mentor to really care about both mentorship and their work,” Mirza says. “Forming a connection with a good mentor goes beyond discussing research topics. I think good mentorship comes from support in all forms, whether it is professional, personal, or something else. Also patience is extremely important, as mentorship takes plenty of time.”

Sara McKinnon, an associate professor in communication arts, mentors several students and believes in the power of mentorship.

Sara McKinnon, an associate professor in communication arts, has been working with student MacKenzie Berry for more than two years.

“Each student I mentor is different, each with unique goals, personalities, and visions for their work. As a mentor, I start with trying to get a sense of who the student is, how they work, and where they want to go with their project and personal development,” McKinnon says. “I try to offer my full support, expertise, experience, and connections toward realizing their vision, with their personality, work-style, and background in mind. Mentoring is about relationship-building and seeing students as whole human beings.”

McKinnon knows firsthand the power of mentorship. She has and continues to have many mentors and says she takes the “more is better” approach.

“My mentors have helped me reach important professional milestones, like publishing a first book, and earning tenure. But more importantly, my mentors have taught me how to live well in this world,” McKinnon says. “They are who I turn to in challenging moments of my life, moments when I’m faced with hard decisions, or life-changing circumstances. Their insight is what I use to decide where to go and how to move.”

She hopes that the students she has mentored pay it forward by becoming mentors. Not only to help others but for what they can also learn from the experience.

“I learn about the world and ways of being, through the experiences, projects and visions of my mentors. I would not understand humanity with as much complexity as I do, without the great learning that each of my mentees has taught me,” McKinnon says. “Mentors are an essential part of living well. They are our teachers and counselors in the practice of living fully in this world.”

The Undergraduate Symposium is sponsored by Brittingham Trust and the Office of the Provost, through the stewardship of the General Library System, Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp Scholarship Programs, Undergraduate Research Scholars ProgramWISCIENCE, the Morgridge Center for Public Service, the Writing Center and the Wisconsin Union.

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How talking more can make you better at listening — to foreign languages  external link

The typical foreign language class spends much of its time listening to fluent speakers — a teacher or a recording — and doing other comprehension-focused exercises, like matching printed words and phrases to pictures, but new research from the University of Wisconsin–Madison shows that the students should spend more time talking.

Foreign language classrooms are very input-oriented, according to Elise Hopman, a UW–Madison psychology graduate student, stressing comprehension of words and phrases fed to the learners because teachers want to stress proper grammar and keep students from reinforcing their own mistakes.

“The idea is that I can only learn from correct input,” Hopman says. “I can’t learn from my own output, because I’m a learner and my output will be faulty.”

The alternative is to combine speaking exercises — in which students produce the words, phrases and sentences themselves, not repeating after a teacher or recording — with immediate feedback, so students always learn the correct form.

Photo: Elise Hopman

Elise Hopman

Photo: Maryellen MacDonald

Maryellen MacDonald

Hopman and UW–Madison psychology professor Maryellen MacDonald tested the benefits of this approach by teaching two groups of study participants the vocabulary and grammar of a made-up language. One group was taught by traditional listening comprehension exercises with feedback on their accuracy. The other group had no comprehension exercises at all—they simply talked and got feedback.

“It’s not surprising that practicing talking can make you better at talking,” says Hopman. “But we wanted to see whether practice with talking could make you better at understanding the language as well. So, at the end of the experiment we tested grammar understanding in several different listening comprehension tests.”

If traditionally favored, comprehension-stressing teaching practices were better at teaching students comprehension of their new language, the group that practiced through listening would do best on listening comprehension tests. However, the researchers found the opposite. On tests of many different kinds of comprehension, the group that had speaking practice was more accurate and a great deal faster — even though they had never completed a single comprehension exercise while they were learning the language.

“It’s not surprising that practicing talking can make you better at talking,” says Hopman. “But we wanted to see whether practice with talking could make you better at understanding the language as well.”

Hopman and MacDonald, who published their results today (April 11, 2018) in the journal Psychological Science, believe the students who focused on learning through speaking got a boost from building stronger connections in their brains.

“We think it works because when you’re trying to create and speak a sentence, you have to sort of shine a flashlight on the building blocks and hold them in what we call working memory,” Hopman says.

Making students produce the new language themselves forces their brains to integrate several tasks at once.

“You go from an idea to picking the words, getting their order together for a sentence, relating it back to the idea, getting the pronunciation of the words, and relating that back up to the idea,” MacDonald says. “That’s what we call binding. You have a plan that you turn into a sentence that results in pronunciation, and in the process all of this stuff gets integrated together and connected in your mind.”

“What we’re advocating for is more balance in the classroom, increasing the focus on production and not looking at production as a bad thing,” MacDonald says.

The process “binds” together vocabulary and grammar and pronunciation, while comprehension tasks tend to require less integration and result in less binding.

“When people are given the language, they can take shortcuts,” MacDonald says. “You may recognize one word that helps you pick up on the message, or an inflection in your teacher’s voice. And those situations require just good-enough processing, not all the binding we believe makes production work better.”

That’s not to say comprehension tasks should be replaced. They can be helpful, and especially useful in many crowded classroom situations.

“What we’re advocating for is more balance in the classroom, increasing the focus on production and not looking at production as a bad thing,” MacDonald says.

The researchers plan to begin testing their experimental findings in a college German course this fall.

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Snowfall patterns may provide clues to Greenland Ice Sheet  external link

The new study involved examining the distinct paths clouds take before they produce snow at Summit Station, a longstanding research station located in the middle of Greenland. Photo by Claire Pettersen

The Greenland Ice Sheet is melting, discharging hundreds of billions of tons of water into the ocean each year. Sea levels are steadily rising.

To better understand and anticipate changes in sea level rise, scientists have sought to quantify how much snow falls on the ice sheet in any given year, and where, since snow is the primary source of the ice sheet’s mass. This has proven to be a challenging problem.

Claire Pettersen at Summit Camp. Photo by Claire Pettersen

However, a new study from a team of researchers led by University of Wisconsin–Madison Space Science and Engineering Center scientist, Claire Pettersen, describes a unique method involving cloud characteristics that could help answer some big questions about the Greenland Ice Sheet and its snowfall. The study is published today [April 9, 2018] in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

“There are a lot of theories about how the precipitation processes over the ice sheet will change in the future,” says Pettersen. “Will it gain more as a result of increased precipitation or will it gain less due to decreasing precipitation?”

Pettersen’s approach involved studying the types of clouds that result in snow on the ice sheet, and examining the distinct paths these clouds take before they produce snow at Summit Station, a longstanding research station located in the middle of Greenland.

Regions of higher elevation on the ice sheet do not receive an abundance of precipitation, and Summit Station tends to be drier still. However, the precipitation it does receive is critical, Pettersen says, “because it is the only available source for building up mass on the ice sheet.”

Left, the surface height of Greenland, created using measurements from the IceBridge campaign. Surface winds from the Summit NOAA meteorological data are shown in a-c: (a) shows all surface winds from 2010–2016 for all times; (b) shows surface winds for the ice cloud snow cases; and (c) shows surface winds for the mixed phase cloud snow cases. Credit: Claire Pettersen

Greenland is more than twice as large as Texas and if the entire ice sheet melted, scientists estimate global sea levels would rise roughly 24 feet.

Pettersen and her team developed a tool that aggregated and processed five-year’s worth of data from the Integrated Characterization of Energy, Clouds, Atmospheric state, and Precipitation at Summit (or ICECAPS) experiment, relying on an array of ground-based, remote sensing instruments – from Doppler radar to an ice particle imaging camera – to collect atmospheric information.

Pettersen took advantage of a wealth of data from an instrument typically used to measure characteristics like temperature and humidity, called a microwave radiometer, and from it gathered information about cloud liquid water and ice within clouds above Greenland.

She discovered that precipitation at Summit came from two distinct cloud types. The first, mixed-phase clouds, hold water vapor, supercooled cloud liquid droplets, and ice particles. They are common across the Arctic.

The second type, ice clouds, contain only ice crystals and no cloud liquid water. These clouds tend to be deep, with cloud top heights reaching as high as 10 km above sea level, Pettersen explains.

Snow-producing mixed-phase clouds originate along the southwest coast of the Greenland Ice Sheet, where the upward slope to Summit is gentle and unimpeded. Pettersen found they produce 51 percent of the snow accumulation observed at Summit.

Ice clouds, on the other hand, are a feature more common to the southeast coast of Greenland, where they face a unique obstacle: To reach Summit Station from the North Atlantic, they must overcome a steep ridge.

“If you have a strong storm system, it can generate enough uplift to pull moisture from near the ocean’s surface up over the ridge, and traverse the high plateau of the central Greenland Ice Sheet,” Pettersen explains.

Though a rather intense process, it is an effective way to transfer moist ocean air into the center of Greenland, she adds. The team found these types of clouds account for 35 percent of the snow that builds up at Summit.

The Big House, one of the permanent structures at Summit Station, a research site on the Greenland ice sheet. Photo by Claire Pettersen

Together, these two processes – from two different directions that follow distinct northern-bound tracks – help provide key mechanisms to account for snowfall at this region of the Greenland Ice Sheet. The atmospheric dynamics responsible for the distinct snow types could be an important piece of the Arctic climate puzzle, says Pettersen.

Unlike prior studies, which relied on models or indirect data, her team was able to use observations gathered directly from the study region, yet they are consistent with earlier findings. Pettersen is hopeful that, with more data analysis over longer periods of time, researchers will find more answers yet to account for the melting ice sheet and the subsequent sea level rise that has already had an impact on regions across the planet.

“Understanding the processes that create precipitation at Summit Station will help us to further understand the mass balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is directly tied to changes in sea level rise,” says Pettersen.

Study collaborators include researchers from Vanderbilt University, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science at University of Colorado, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory, and Washington State University. This study was supported by multiple grants from the National Science Foundation.

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Grad student researches native bee habitats in urban areas  external link

In surveying Madison’s native bee populations, Vera Pfeiffer hopes to provide a better, more informed context for policies that can make the habitats we share with pollinators more biodiverse.

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26 UW-Madison students awarded prestigious NSF fellowships  external link

The NSF fellowship program selects high-potential scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers, providing awardees with support for graduate research training in STEM fields.

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Waisman Center welcomes a center leader to director position  external link

Qiang Chang, a longstanding member of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Waisman Center’s leadership team, has been named the new director of the center following a nationwide search.

Chang will assume the position on July 1 and report to the UW–Madison vice chancellor for research and graduate education.

Photo: Qiang Chang

Qiang Chang

Chang is an associate professor of genetics and neurology and interim director of the Waisman Center’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC). He is also the principal investigator for the Waisman Center core grant awarded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U54 HD090256). Chang, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, joined the UW–Madison faculty in 2007, following postdoctoral training at MIT. His research interests focus on Rett syndrome, a debilitating genetic condition that primarily affects girls.

“The Waisman Center has a long and rich history as a multidisciplinary center devoted to the study of human development, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and neurodegenerative diseases throughout the lifespan,” says Chang, who will be the center’s sixth director.

“It’s truly an honor to be able to lead such a dedicated and world-class cohort of faculty and affiliates that are working together in basic and translational research to understand developmental disabilities and develop effective treatments for some of the most challenging disorders. I also look forward to fostering the center’s strong partnerships on campus and in the community.”

Bradley Christian, professor of medical physics and psychiatry, co-director of the Waisman Brain Imaging Core and member of the center’s executive committee, led the director search committee.

“Dr. Qiang Chang is an internationally renowned expert in studying the genetic underpinnings of Rett syndrome. His research serves as an exemplary illustration of the Waisman Center’s commitment to investigations of intellectual and developmental disabilities,” says Christian.

“It’s truly an honor to be able to lead such a dedicated and world-class cohort of faculty and affiliates that are working together in basic and translational research to understand developmental disabilities and develop effective treatments for some of the most challenging disorders.”

Qiang Chang

“In addition to his outstanding scientific skills, he also brings a wide breadth of institutional knowledge which emphasizes a balance of research, education and community outreach. Dr. Chang is ideally equipped to guide the Waisman Center towards fulfillment of its mission as a world-class center for advancing knowledge about human development, developmental disabilities and neurodegenerative diseases.”

Waisman Center researchers like Chang are engaged in both biological and behavioral research on developmental disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and communication disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS and Parkinson’s. The Waisman Center is also home to specialty clinics with more than 8,000 patient visits each year, a preschool with developmentally diverse enrollment, and a biomanufacturing facility for phase I and II human clinical trials. Many health concerns bring people to the Waisman Center from throughout Wisconsin, as well as neighboring states and other parts of the country.

“Qiang is a first-rate scientist and has served in a series of leadership roles at the Waisman Center,” says Norman Drinkwater, interim vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “He is well-positioned to lead the Waisman Center to a future that is as exciting and impactful as its rich history demands.”

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Here is how a cat can hinder children learning new words  external link

Say you are shown an apple, a banana and a fruit you have never seen before. Then you are asked to pick the “pifo.” Which fruit would you choose?

Chances are you would select the novel fruit. Children often use the same strategy — leveraging their knowledge of familiar objects — to learn new words and connect them with unfamiliar or novel objects by process of elimination. So it might seem that having familiar objects around would help children learn new words.

That’s what researchers thought, too, but a new study directed by University of Wisconsin–Madison psychology professor Jenny Saffran is the first to show that familiar objects can sometimes be a “double-edged sword” — both helping children learn new words and hindering them.

Photo: Woman holding infant pointing at screens

A new study found that familiar objects more interesting to children distracted them from focusing on novel objects and reduced their ability to learn new words associated with those objects. Photo: Andy Manis

“It’s pretty universally accepted that familiar objects help children learn new words,” says study co-author Ron Pomper, a graduate student in Saffran’s Infant Learning Lab at the Waisman Center. “We show that it’s more nuanced than that.”

Published recently in the journal Child Development, the study found that familiar objects that are more interesting to children — brightly colored ones, or animals or food, for example — distracted them from focusing on novel objects and reduced their ability to learn new words associated with those objects.

This surprised Pomper and Saffran, who were working with children from just older than 3 years to almost 4 — from 38 months to 45 months, to be exact. The Infant Learning Lab studies development among children 6 months to 6 years of age.

“Although they might make it look easy, children are working very hard to learn new words,” says Pomper. “This study shows that not all word-learning opportunities are equal. If a cat walks in, for example, it may not be the best time for a child to be learning new words.”

Photo: Jenny Saffran

Jenny Saffran

Photo: Ron Pomper

Ron Pomper

To further explore whether interesting familiar objects distract children from novel objects, the researchers showed children a pair of images: one of a familiar object, like a cat or a box, and one of a novel object. While the children were looking at the images, they heard a sentence that contained a new word, like, “Find the pifo” or “Where’s the tever?”

Researchers tracked children’s gazes and found that they spent significantly less time looking at the novel object when the familiar object was more interesting, like a cat, compared to when the familiar object was less interesting, like a box.

When the familiar object was more interesting, the children also took longer to shift their gaze to the novel object after hearing the sentence containing new words, like “pifo” or “tever.”

To find out if having more interesting familiar objects hindered children’s ability to connect new words with novel objects, the researchers did a second test in which they showed the children the novel object from the first test (those labeled as a “pifo” or a “tever”) but added a second novel object. Then they asked the children to find the “pifo” or “tever” again.

Photo: Graphic of different test images


In “Referent Selection Trials,” children are shown one familiar and one novel object, while in “Test trials” they are shown two novel objects and tested on whether they remember the novel object and new word they encountered earlier.

If the familiar object in the first set of tests was more interesting, it was basically a coin toss whether the children were able to correctly identify the “pifo” or “tever” in the second test. But if the familiar object was less interesting — such as a box or a piece of furniture — children connected the new word to the correct novel object significantly better than random chance would predict.

“Most words that children know are things that they are really interested in,” says Pomper. “Interesting objects may often be really distracting in natural settings and not actually help children learn new words.”

In future research, Pomper and Saffran plan to re-create different aspects of children’s natural settings — with objects that move or make sounds, for example — to better understand how the environment can influence children’s ability to acquire new words and language.

This study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and a James S. McDonnell Foundation Grant.

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