A Living Lab

Originally posted: March 28, 2012


Teacher Caitlin Mason (left) and Kiana Parks ’13 at the Rollins College Child Development and Student Research Center.

Studying child psychology via textbook or lecture can be valuable, but few would argue the benefits of actually sitting with children and studying their behavior first-hand. This type of empirical study is rarely afforded to psychology students, but at Rollins, it’s an everyday affair thanks to the Rollins College Child Development and Student Research Center (CDC).

Wander into the Center on any given day and you’ll not only see 18 preschool children playing, painting, or snacking, but you will likely also see some Rollins students, clipboards and notepads in hand, observing and assessing the children’s behaviors and applying these observations to classes in psychology, education, and even mathematics.

“What I want people to grasp, more than anything, is the value of the CDC as a lab for our students,” said Sharon Carnahan, professor of psychology and executive director of the CDC. “About 20 psychology undergraduate students do research here through a course or an independent study each semester and about five or six other students do projects here each year.”

The CDC also provides an opportunity for several other classes to conduct empirical research. Last semester, Assistant Professor of Mathematics Zeynep Teymuroglu brought her Rollins College Conference course to the center to conduct research on the types of foods children chose to eat versus the types of foods presented to them.

“Our service-learning project focused on raising awareness of childhood obesity, and collaborated with the CDC to investigate eating behavior patterns of the preschoolers enrolled there,” Teymuroglu said. “Students were able to plot bar charts and calculate simple statistics measures to determine how healthful CDC snack menu options were.”

“Here is a class completely outside the psychology department doing data collection in a supervised lab environment,” said Carnahan, who alternates teaching Development Psychology with Assistant Professor of Psychology Alice Davidson.

Developmental Psychology focuses on infant and child development from conception through adolescence and delivers the course material through readings, lectures, films, class activities, and discussions. But a pivotal aspect of the course is the work students do at the CDC where the budding researchers gain first-hand experience observing children’s development by completing a case study of one child at the center.

“Students work approximately 30 hours each semester with children in the CDC,” said Carnahan. “The CDC offers a rich environment to support so much research.”

The Narrative Project

Kristen Garabedian ’14 is currently enrolled in Developmental Psychology and is conducting an independent research study. “Our research is all about children’s narratives, specifically, how their stories change over time,” she shared. “My experience at the CDC has been wonderful. I love all the children and I have been so inspired by my target child, Emerson, who has Down syndrome. Honestly, it is the highlight of my day because I know that no matter what mood I walk in there with, I am guaranteed to come out smiling.”

Cara Guthrie ’13 is also doing psychology research at the CDC and visits three times each week. “For now, I’ve mostly just been playing with them and reading them books and such, because I want to make sure they know who I am before I try to collect stories from the children for our research,” said Guthrie. “But I have observed Julia and Kristen several times collecting stories from them and I’ve done a few practice stories. I already have a lot of experience with kids these age, but I think this experience will just make my perspective that much wider as I continue this work throughout the rest of my time here at Rollins.‬”

The stories the students are collecting stem from a larger research project that Professor Davidson embarked on last year. The Narrative Project aims to study the development of young children’s narrative skills in association with their social adjustment and cognitive (literacy) skills. “Children’s ability to tell stories emerges in early childhood, and the narratives children share allow them to structure and make meaning out of their personal experiences, as well as to begin to construct a sense of identity and take the perspective of others,” said Davidson. “Oral narratives are being collected on an ongoing basis at the CDC for this project.”

Two Rollins students, Julia Szenberg ’13 and Aly Emens ’13, were involved with collecting, transcribing and coding these stories for narrative coherence, and Szenberg will present preliminary findings from this research at the 2012 International Narrative Matters Conference in Paris this summer.

Excellence in Child Development

Along with providing students with a living lab in which to study child psychology, the CDC also provides outstanding care for the 17 to 19 lucky preschoolers who call it home three to five days each week. These children are from local families but priority in admissions goes to children of staff and faculty like Rachel Newcomb, associate professor of anthropology.

“As a faculty member, I am seeing that important scholarly work is taking place at the CDC. The Rollins students who work with the children through their developmental psychology class are getting the chance to conduct firsthand research into the stages of child development, and they are also taking part in a progressive laboratory school,” said Newcomb. “As a parent, I’m thrilled with my child’s opportunity to interact with these students, and I learn a lot about my child’s development through the students’ final portfolios. I am also amazed at how well prepared the CDC children are for their first year of school. Many of them enter the school system with skills well beyond their age level, and the interdisciplinary, inter-age programming at CDC is a testament to that.”

Over the four decades since the CDC was established, it has also become a center for excellence in community education. Earlier this year, the CDC partnered with the Winter Park Day Nursery (WPDN) to become one of five statewide model/demonstration sites for Florida’s Positive Behavior Support Project, which trains teachers in a progressive social and emotional curriculum in early education.

CDC on-site Director Diane Terorde Doyle is serving as an external coach for WPDN, using a research-based observation tool to help preschool teachers improve. This summer, CDC teacher Caitlin Mason will direct a summer program for children with Down syndrome for a second year. And past projects like Screen for Success, the YMCA After School Research Project, and the Good Neighbor Conferences helped put Rollins on the map for community education.

Last year, Carnahan was asked to serve on a statewide Florida Developmental Disabilities Council Task Force on Child Development Screening. The task force will develop recommendations and policy changes needed to implement a comprehensive statewide system for the screening of children. Carnahan has also traveled to Costa Rica several times to share childhood education research and was recently invited to give an address at the statewide Down syndrome conference.

“The CDC has won the area-wide Down syndrome support award for inclusion twice,” Carnahan said.  “Access to education for all is one of our core values, and we teach this to our Rollins students though direct experience.”

Expansion Plans

The CDC is currently in the preliminary stages of planning for an expansion. “The college has committed to an early design study to explore programming, conceptual design, and a site plan for the relocation of the CDC from its current location to that of the College Arms facility,” said Scott Bitikofer, director of facilities. “This material will then be turned over to development to assist in fundraising activities in support of this project.”

As the project comes together, Carnahan hopes to be able to double their capacity. “With more children enrolled at the CDC, we could do self-contained research studies, which would allow us to complete additional research in a controlled environment,” she said.  For now, she’s content to be pretty darn proud of the unassuming CDC and all that it has provided for Rollins students and local preschoolers since 1975.

The lasting impact of the CDC is seen in the children who go on to a successful education, and in the undergraduates who become school and clinical psychologists, social workers, United Way board members, teachers, child advocates, and better parents,” notes Carnahan. “ We’re proud to have helped form part of the next generation of Rollins.”

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