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Summer student research: Social cognition in children

July 31, 2014

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    Ashley Hufnagle '15 and Jessica Isibor

Lewis & Clark students remain closely engaged with their fields of study during the summer months, and many make meaningful contributions to scholarship by collaborating with faculty on innovative research.

Ashley Hufnagle ’16 has been working with Assistant Professor of Psychology Jennifer LaBounty to study how children respond to the psychological states of those around them. She reflects on this experience in the following Q&A.

What are you researching?

My primary focus this summer has been investigating social cognitive development in young children. Social cognition is the understanding of other people’s psychological states. This encompasses two main constructs—theory of mind (understanding the thoughts and desires of others) and emotion understanding (understanding the feelings of others in context). Previous research has demonstrated a link between advanced social cognition in early childhood and many important social and academic outcomes later in life. Therefore, our research is concerned with pinpointing the factors or experiences—such as quality and content of parent-child interaction, or individual temperament—that contribute to the advancement of social cognition.

What initially sparked your interest in this project, and how does it relate to your previous coursework?

This project seemed to have a perfect balance of my two primary interests, which are psychology and education. I get to pursue exciting research in my field while being surrounded by young children and mentoring a high school student, Jessica Isibor. I really appreciate the opportunity to teach and learn at the same time.

How has your Lewis & Clark education been enhanced by close collaboration with faculty?

Having the opportunity to closely collaborate with Professor LaBounty has been such an invaluable experience. She is a wonderful mentor and has instilled in me great excitement about research. While I’ve learned a lot from her expertise, our relationship feels truly equitable. I am extremely invested in our project as a result.

Are you conducting any of your research off campus? If so, what does that process entail?

In addition to our work at Lewis & Clark, we’re conducting research on infants’ use of social referencing at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). This program is part of the National Science Foundation’s Living Laboratory Initiative, which aims to educate the public about child development by immersing visitors in the process of scientific discovery.

Does your research have potential to be applied in the real world or to influence other work in your field?

By identifying the factors that result in advanced social cognitive skills, we may be able to cultivate more proficient parenting as well as teaching practices that foster social cognition in children. Promoting these social cognitive skills can have numerous long-term benefits in educational settings and in the workplace. These include conflict resolution, the ability to effectively empathize, and the capacity to understand the expectations of teachers and coworkers.

How will this research experience hopefully impact your future studies or professional pursuits?

This research experience is definitely helping me to parse out what my future career path might be. I’d love to work again in an applied setting that allows me to combine my passions for psychology and education. But I believe that this research experience will contribute positively to anything I pursue, whether it’s child clinical psychology, educational psychology, or teaching.

About the Rogers Science Research Program

The John S. Rogers Science Research Program allows students to pursue graduate-level research in the natural and mathematical sciences. It emphasizes strong communication skills, requiring students to publicly present their findings. This summer, more than 50 students are being sponsored to study such topics as memory formation, cybersecurity, and the impact of nicotine on flies.

“We’re not asking you, ‘What’s the answer?’ We’re saying, ‘What’s the question?’” said Michael Broide, director of the Rogers program and chair of the physics department. “I think what sets our program apart is that regardless of what project you are on, we’re all going to come together as a group to present what we’re doing in as accessible a way as possible. In science, it’s such an important skill to be able to explain cogently what you’re doing.”

Students make their final research presentations at the Rogers summer science poster session, held in conjunction with the Science Without Limits Symposium. Scheduled for September 17, the poster session is free and open to the public.

Katrina Staaf ’16 contributed to this story.

Psychology Department Collaborative Research