Nearly three months ago, Cornell’s campus closed, shuttering all labs not researching COVID-19 for the rest of the semester. As researchers transitioned from lab to living room, many were forced to grapple with how to best carry on their work.
For scientists at the Cornell Early Childhood Cognition Lab — which studies how children learn through their experiences — this meant shifting studies and data collection online through emailing participants and developing game apps to observe child behavior.
Deanna Kocher grad, who researches child-robot interaction, said she had to find ways to work around the restrictions imposed by researching at home.
“We’ve come up with some really creative ways that we can do studies online with virtual robots…I started a bunch of studies that are based on kids watching videos of robots or computer games involving a robot,” Kocher said.
Kocher’s study originally involved observing the way children speak to robots, contributing to the lab’s overarching goal of understanding how children interact with the world around them. Normally, this would require the children to physically be in the lab to interact with the robot. However, Kocher now utilizes apps and online games to stimulate interactions with robots.
Kocher’s study is only one of the many research projects in the ECC Lab. Another member of the lab, Scott Partington ’20, investigates the way children learn morals.
“Now it’s exclusively over Zoom. We set up appointments and then video chat the kids and go through the study with the webcam,” Partington said.
Through mobile apps and virtual conferencing softwares, connecting with colleagues and research participants who are geographically separated is now more feasible.
Despite the lack of lab facilities, the ECC has expanded its outreach, collaborating with scientists at other research institutions. One of the greatest benefits was the ability to obtain a larger ethnically and geographically diverse group of participants in a short period of time, something unheard of during in-person studies back in Ithaca.
Initially, Reut Shachnai grad used in-person observations and interactions to study how role models and pretend play affect young girls’ persistence in science. In order to continue her research, Shachnai created a mobile game to reach children through video conferences.
As an international student from Israel, Shachnai also explored the idea of testing kids from her home country once she saw how easy it was to connect with children from other countries like Australia.
Although researchers are able to connect with children beyond Ithaca, there are still some concerns over how virtual studies impact the quality of data and whether children’s interactions with a screen — instead of a real person — affect their behavior. Being removed from the lab also takes away interactions with children, which some of the lab members found fulfilling and said could lead to insightful observations.
“Some of the best parts are interacting with kids,” said Neha Kaul ’20, who researches children’s choices and abilities. “You learn so much from it… because children are so smart.”
While labs have begun to reopen, virtual research appears to be the norm for the foreseeable future.
“I think this whole time will change how we do developmental research from now on, even after the pandemic ends… A lot of research [with adults] is done online anyways. If we move it online, we can start testing kids from all over,” Shachnai said.