Fun and learning at the Living Lab

A man and a baby look at a children’s book together.

“If we want to understand bilingual development, we need to test as many bilingual infants as possible. What better place than an interactive museum in the heart of Canada’s capital to do just that?”

—  Chris Fennell

By Sonia Vani

Imagine going on a family outing to a museum and taking part in real studies on children’s cognitive development and language acquisition. Imagine watching your child interact with researchers, who engage them in short games, puzzles or problem-solving tasks, and then chatting with the researchers — before continuing on to the museum’s other exhibits. 

How children learn is at the heart of Ontario’s first Living Lab, which takes groundbreaking research by University of Ottawa developmental psychologists and linguists out of the university and into a child-friendly museum setting, where children can contribute to knowledge of how language and cognition develop from infancy to school age, and parents gain some fascinating new insights.

Museum for the digital age

The Living Lab is a new partnership between uOttawa and the Canada Science and Technology Museum. It’s already open to visitors in a temporary location at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. In the fall of 2017, when the Canada Science and Technology Museum reopens after a major renovation, it will move to its permanent home.

The Museum’s $80.5 million upgrade not only includes an overhaul of the physical space, but also a reimagining of the visitor experience. Engaging, educational and cool — these are the watchwords of today’s museums as they experiment with providing a more dynamic experience for visitors, especially younger ones growing up in an increasingly interactive era.

That’s where the Living Lab comes in. It’s both fun and interesting for families and a useful source of information for uOttawa researchers. It will also provide valuable real-world experience for the students helping out with the research.

Pioneering efforts

The Living Lab was born thanks to the pioneering efforts of three uOttawa professors with a shared interest in children’s cognitive development and language acquisition.

Assise sur des boîtes à jouets posées contre un mur décoré d’images d’animaux, une femme observe un petit garçon qui joue près d’elle.

Cristina Atance, with a research subject. Photo: Peter Thornton 

Cristina Atancea professor of psychology at the Faculty of Social Sciences, is fascinated by future thinking in children. When do they develop the cognitive ability to understand the concept of tomorrow or next year? When do they start imagining the future and even planning ahead?

Tania Zamuner, a professor of linguistics in the Faculty of Arts, is looking at language acquisition in preschoolers. For example, in her research, children see two objects on a screen and hear a word for one. Using eye-tracking technology, Zamuner can determine how quickly kids recognize the target words.

Chris Fennella professor of psychology in the Faculty of Social Sciences, is an authority on infant bilingualism who has studied French-English bilingual babies’ word-learning skills for more than a decade. His research explores how babies acquire the ability to understand two languages, and how parents and other caregivers shape early bilingualism.

“If we want to understand bilingual development, we need to test as many bilingual infants as possible,” Fennell says. “What better place than an interactive museum in the heart of Canada’s capital to do just that?”

Main photo:
Chris Fennell with Sofia, daughter of his School of Psychology colleague Nafissa Ismail. Professor Fennell is an expert on bilingualism in babies. Photo: James Park Photography


Architectural illustration of a long building with modern lines, with a parking lot and green space out front. Colourful, brightly lit interior spaces are visible through large windows.

A concept drawing of the renovated Canada Science and Technology Museum, scheduled to reopen in the fall of 2017 after an $80.5 million overhaul. The Museum also received a further $156.4 million, announced in Budget 2016, to build a state-of-the-art Collection and Conservation Centre on the same site. Photo: CSTM

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