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Science of Learning Center Comes to Campus

By Daniel Kane | October 2, 2006

If a robot responds to a child’s smile too quickly, that child may not realize the robot is really smiling back. If a teacher piles on too many new ideas during the last ten minutes of a 60-minute lecture, students may have an extra tough time following along. The physics problem you couldn’t figure out last night at 2 a.m. may not be so daunting the next day.

A common theme in each of these scenarios is time. Time plays an important factor in learning. But how? At what level? Is it psychology? Is it cell biology? Is it neuroscience? Is it related to our perception of the world? These kinds of questions, and many others, will be addressed by the scientists who are part of a new "Science of Learning" center based at UC San Diego that has just been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Temporal Learning
  CLICK HERE TO VIEW A VIDEO
OF RUBI, THE SOCIAL ROBOT (Quicktime 7)
RUBI, a social robot that currently teaches numbers, colors and other basic concepts to kids at the UCSD Early Childhood Education Center – and the scientists who created her – are part of The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center.

The initial NSF grant for the new UCSD-based center is for $3.5 million, with the possibility of an additional $32 million over the next decade.

The center is called The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, and it will benefit from major participation from scientists at Vanderbilt University, Rutgers University at Newark, and other U.S. and international institutions.

The NSF’s Science of Learning Centers program offers awards for large-scale, long-term centers that will extend the frontiers of knowledge on learning of all types.

Gary Cottrell, a computer science and engineering professor from UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering, is the driving force behind the founding of the center as well as a participating researcher. Cottrell recruited more than 40 researchers from across the United States, Canada and Australia to participate in the center, which has a "network
of networks" collaborative research structure.

Gary Cotrell
Gary Cottrell

“We will work across disciplines to synchronize our research on various aspects of time and timing in learning to develop a more comprehensive, multidisciplinary science focused on the temporal dynamics of learning, from the laboratory to the classroom,” Cottrell said.

Cottrell will direct The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center with Andrea Chiba, a professor in the cognitive science department and an affiliate of the graduate program in neurosciences at UCSD, and with Terry Sejnowski, who is the head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and a professor of biology at UCSD.

“Timing is everything. It’s been a neglected area that we think can really be exploited to help us understand some of the basic ways in which information is integrated in our brains across a variety of timescales,” Sejnowski said.  I think we could transform the way that research is actually done by understanding in a real classroom setting how children interact with teachers and use that to help inform our science,”.

The Preuss School — a middle school and high school on the UCSD campus that provides intensive college prep education for motivated low-income students — will serve as a “living lab” for appropriate research projects, such as testing new ideas concerning how and when new material should be presented to students. UCSD’s Student Educational Advancement office, whose primary mission is to motivate and prepare educationally disadvantaged and first-generation college students for college success and graduate school, is another outreach partner.

Andrea Chiba
Andrea Chiba

One of the research groups will study how time affects interactions between children and adults in educational settings. Insights on learning may be passed on to RUBI, a social robot that currently teaches numbers, colors and other basic concepts to kids at the UCSD Early Childhood Education Center, according to Chiba.

Cottrell said the approach used to organize research at the center is unique.

“We have created four research networks, made up of interdisciplinary teams to study the same questions using differing methods, skills, and expertise, “ he said. “We have explicitly not created groups that will just meet and tell each other about their research. “Rather, we will work across disciplines to synchronize our research on various aspects of time and timing in learning to develop a more comprehensive, multidisciplinary science focused on the temporal dynamics of learning, from the laboratory to the classroom.”

The scientists who are part of this new multidisciplinary center hail from a variety of fields, including machine learning, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, molecular genetics, biophysics, mathematics, and education.

“Creating a Science of Learning Center with our colleagues from Rutgers and from Vanderbilt is really an exciting development that is consistent with the mission and vision for this campus,” said Chancellor Marye Anne Fox. “We have the No. 1 neuroscience program in the country. We have the San Diego Supercomputer Center which is unique in being able to handle the large data sets that will be generated by basic research. It will be a wonderful multidisciplinary center."

The researchers are asking questions that cross the boundaries of traditional fields of learning research. In an attempt to achieve results that will extend beyond academia, questions are being developed through ongoing dialogue with educators. The researchers hope to improve teacher understanding of the scientific research pertaining to the dynamics of learning. In addition, the researchers aim to collaborate with teachers to understand the dynamics of how students are taught in the classroom. Through this process of outreach and “inreach” — bringing teachers into the laboratory — the center’s researchers hope to ensure that their work will be relevant to the real world of the classroom.

Terry Sejhowski
Terry Sejhowski

The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center will integrate its research and educational mission through the Education Outreach Center that will be co-directed by Paula Tallal of Rutgers and Sejnowski of Salk.

The four networks that will make up The Temporal Dynamics Learning Center are the:

— Sensory Motor Learning Network : Researchers will study the fine temporal dynamics of synaptic learning and motor learning. The network leader is Dan Feldman, professor of biology and neuroscience at UCSD.

— Interacting Memory Systems Network: Scientists will focus on the timing of interactions among memory systems. The network leader is Andrea Chiba, professor of cognitive science and neuroscience at UCSD.

— Perceptual Expertise Network: Investigators will study the time course of how representations come online in perceptual expertise, such as face processing. The network leaders are Isabel Gauthier and Tom Palmeri from the psychology department at Vanderbilt University .

— Social Interaction Network: Researchers will study how time affects interactions between children and adults in educational settings. Insights on learning may be passed on to RUBI, a social robot that currently teaches numbers, colors and other basic concepts to kids at the UCSD Early Childhood Education Center . The network leader is Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Lab at UCSD’s Institute for Neural Computation, located in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) on the La Jolla campus.

Only four other Science of Learning Centers have been funded in recent years. The NSF is, however, in the process of funding two new centers: one will be dedicated to understanding spatial aspects of learning and the other will focus on vision and learning.

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