Dr. Cristina Atance and Dr. Chris Fennell are professors at the U of O. Photo: Anchal Sharma.
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Exhibit seeks to study child development through practical and applied research

The Canada Science and Technology Museum has recently partnered with the University of Ottawa to introduce the Living Lab, a new interactive exhibit that allows researchers to study child development in the heart of the Ottawa community.

The lab, co-directed by developmental psychologists Dr. Cristina Atance and Dr. Chris Fennell, and linguist Dr. Tania Zamuner at the U of O, opened in Nov. 2017 along with the museum after it underwent renovations from 2014 to 2017.

According to Atance, the Living Lab is a collaborative effort between the private and public sectors. The museum provided the space for research, while the university and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council provided funding through grants.

Fennell, an associate professor of psychology at the U of O sees the opportunity as a fundamental part of his job.

“As scientists that work with families and children, one of our big responsibilities is to convey what we know,” he explained. “(It’s) not to hide in the university and just publish dry academic articles, but to actually engage the public with what we’re discovering.”

Such discoveries come in the form of puzzles, games, and other engaging activities for toddlers and young children. Parents are welcome to walk in with their kids as they browse the museum and take part in research studies looking at anything from word recognition to cognitive development and ‘mental time travel.’

Atance explains the concept as a means to measure the ways children see themselves in future situations, and how they relate back to past experiences.

She also shared that the museum has given them more exposure as opposed to working within the classic university structure. “We’ve had over 300 families come in in two months,” she explained, which is the same amount of children they would usually get in a span of six months at the university.

The lab is also a great opportunity for students to build their experience in the field of cognitive development, and, in a broader sense, communication.

At the moment, Atance, Fennell, and Zamuner are working with graduate and undergraduate students completing honours theses in the lab to provide them with relevant experience in their programs, with one directed research student who is receiving a university credit for their work. Fennell said that he is also incorporating the exhibit into his courses by getting his students to create PowerPoint presentations based on their research at the lab that is then displayed at the museum.

The professors plan to open the lab to other initiatives such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at the U of O that will provide a student with $1,000 to intern at the lab.

They are also looking into the possibility of offering a work-study program, as well as co-op placements.

Although for the time being, they are looking for volunteers, and ask that interested applicants with relevant experience, such as good marks in a cognitive development class, and prior engagement with children, email them for more information.

“We’re looking for someone who has the drive, the ambition, but also the discipline,” Fennell said.

The Living Lab is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.