Upfront

When you imagine visiting a science museum, you probably think of giant anatomy displays or quirky physics demonstrations, but not cognitive science. Boston’s Museum of Science is changing that.

The museum’s Living Laboratory, an interactive cognitive and developmental science exhibit, doubles as a working lab for scientists. The experiments cover many of developmental psychology’s hot topics, including moral development, language development, mathematical cognition, sharing, cause-and-effect, learning and altruism.

Here’s how the lab works: Scientists submit proposals to the museum describing an experiment’s purpose and how it will be conducted. The museum then chooses approximately 15 experiments to feature during a semester and gives the scientists a crash course on interacting with the public. Once the semester begins, the scientists ask child museum-goers (and their parents) to take part in their quick experiments.

“Families are recruited straight from the exhibit floor,” says Living Lab supervisor Marta Biarnes.

The experiments are always designed to be fun, says Paul Harris, PhD, a Harvard University developmental psychologist who, with his graduate students, has run experiments at the lab since it opened in 2005. One experiment, for example, teases out the age at which children are able to tell if someone is real or fictional based on contextual clues in a story, such as whether a character can fly or is able to live forever. (The experiment found that age 5 or 6 is when children can usually make this distinction.)

Sometimes adults participate in the studies, such as one that looks at adult influence on children’s problem-solving skills. In it, children are asked to solve a wooden block puzzle. Half the children get hands-on help from their parents, while the other half only receive their parents’ verbal instructions. Then the children try to solve the puzzle again on their own. The running hypothesis is that older children will be better able to incorporate their parents’ advice once they’re on their own.

So far, more than 12,000 families have participated in Living Lab experiments, and 20 studies have been published as a result. The number of papers published and number of people interacted with is equally important to the museum and the scientists working there, Biarnes says. “This is something museums are looking toward [to further] their own educational missions,” she says. “Being educators of their own science is very attractive.”

Visit the Living Lab online.

—M. Price