Science of Learning conference unites researchers

By ISAAC CHEN | February 1, 2018


Over 300 people attended the biennial symposium hosted by the Science of Learning Institute.

On Jan. 22, faculty and students across various fields of science gathered together in Hodson Hall for the biennial Science of Learning Symposium.

This past January marked the five-year anniversary for the Science of Learning Institute, which was founded in 2013. In her opening speech, Barbara Landau, director of the Science of Learning Institute and professor of cognitive science, explained what science of learning means.

“Science of learning is a vision. Its goals cannot be done in a quick fix; therefore it is rather a long game, whose foundations give us fact-based knowledge that we need in order to guide action,” Landau said.

The mission of the Science of Learning Institute is to understand how people learn from varying levels of analysis — from molecular and cellular mechanisms, to cognitive connections and to real-life applications in a classroom context.

Over the past five years, the Institute has worked diligently towards three specific goals to accomplish their mission: fostering cutting-edge science of learning research; training future leaders in science of learning; and connecting science to practice.

The Institute has reached many milestones over the years. For example, it funded 41 innovative science of learning research and fellowship projects, generated over 17 million dollars in new funding for research and community partnership projects and produced 86 outreach initiatives to disseminate research into the broad science of learning community.

The overarching theme of this year’s symposium was “Minding the Gaps Among Levels of Explanation.”

In her speech, Landau shed light on the purpose of the theme.

“What we are doing is to present to you some conundrums, some difficulties, some challenges and some solutions in trying to fill the gap between very different levels of explanation… very often people are talking about one level and they are talking to others who are thinking at very different levels,” Landau said.

To present these gaps, the speakers were paired to showcase different approaches, with a discussion period at the end of each session to go over both of the speakers’ talks.

One of the speakers, Andrei Cimpian, associate professor of psychology at New York University, explored the cause of gender gaps in STEM fields, the social sciences and the humanities. After showing the audience a graph of the percentage of women with PhDs across different fields, Cimpian posed a question.

“What if, and this is a big what if, there are features of a field that might make it unwelcoming for women as well as members of other groups?” Cimpian said.

The field-specific ability beliefs (FAB) hypothesis, Cimpian proposed, identifies two factors for women’s underrepresentation in a field: the idolization of brilliance and genius and the association of brilliance with men more than women.

In one of the tests for the FAB hypothesis, 1820 faculty and graduates in 30 distinct disciplines across the nation were surveyed.

The participants were asked what they see as required to be successful in their field, specifically whether success requires simply effort and dedication or a special talent that cannot be taught.

The results demonstrated a very strong negative relationship.

According to the hypothesis, fields that have a greater emphasis on high level, innate intellectual traits produce fewer female PhDs.

Another speaker, Daniel Simons, is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Simons posed the question of whether brain training programs and games enhance real-word cognitive abilities.

“By practicing one thing, you can get much better at other things,” Simons said.

In his speech, Simons presented results of a comprehensive evaluation of evidence from 132 studies that leading brain training companies cited to support the benefits of brain training. Simons and his colleagues identified several shortcomings among those studies, such as small or non-representative samples, inadequate control groups and selective reporting of outcomes.

Overall, they discovered that most brain training games only make the players better at the specific game, and they lack convincing evidence for real-life improvements in everyday cognitive abilities.

Howard Egeth, a professor of the psychological and brain sciences department at Hopkins, conducts research on topics including attention, cognition, attention and attention selectivity. He found Simons’ talk particularly engaging.

“I was particularly interested in the presentation by Dan Simons, as it pertains to my own research. He discussed the effect of playing ‘brain games’ in cognition, while I’ve been working on the effect of exercise on cognition — with Peter Searson and Kerry Stewart, and funded by a Hopkins Discovery Grant,” Egeth said. “It turns out that many of the methodological issues are the same in the two areas.”

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