Psychology professor Cristine Legare wins $1.3 million grant to conduct research on childhood development

Logan Herrington

Psychology associate professor Cristine Legare received a three-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how children develop scientific reasoning abilities.

Legare — who also serves as the director of the Cognition Culture and Development Lab — will work with David Sobel, cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences professor at Brown University, and Maureen Callanan, psychology professor at University of California-Santa Cruz, on the study.

According to an overview of the study, Legare and her team will study the behavior of various families with young children at children’s museums around the United States. Sobel said the team will use multiple museums for the research, but Legare will focus on the Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin.

The experiment seeks to reconcile the seemingly incompatible nature of what the researchers call “exploratory” and “explanatory” learning, according to the overview. Exploratory learning refers to learning through hands-on experience, while explanatory learning refers to instruction from a teacher.  

“In addition to uncovering patterns of family explanation and exploration, the proposed studies measure children’s causal understanding and build on this knowledge base to develop and test effective interventions,” the overview said. “Children’s museums are ideal environments for this research because they give us access to everyday activity and conversations of families, and they provide a natural laboratory for testing the effectiveness of targeted interventions.” 

Sobel said the experiment seeks to understand how the interactions between parents and children relate to the causal structures in the museum exhibits. 

“We are looking at how the museums themselves can promote exploratory and explanatory behaviors in parents and children to support the learning opportunities that takes place in children’s museums,” Sobel said.

Cybil Guess, director of experience at the Thinkery, said she thinks the experiment will be insightful for both the researchers and the museum staff. Guess said the museum has collaborated with Legare before, but this experiment could improve the museum experience.

“This experiment takes her research and brings it to an applicable level,” Guess said. “I think the results of the experiment will allow us to do our job better at the museum.” 

According to the study overview, the findings of the experiment will produce new strategies for introducing scientific reasoning to children and promote children’s desire to learn more in the fields of science and technology.

Sobel said the grant will start in January.