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Elizabeth Bonawitz

Rutgers University

Early Career Research Fellow
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
Rutgers University
United States of America
PhD, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009
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Research Focus
Elizabeth Bonawitz studies the Science of Learning. Her research bridges empirical work in cognitive development with computational models of learning. She uses experiments in the lab to study how children learn from observation, teachers, and their own interventions (play). The computational models help to explain why learning occurs in these different contexts, starting with the idea that the mind is a kind of computer that interprets information from experiences. An important part of this work is to characterize how learning mechanisms interact with different early childhood experiences. She hopes this research will connect to educational practice, particularly in underserved populations.

My plans for the fellowship period
My research will investigate how different cultural and SES (social economic status) experiences shape children’s drive to resolve uncertainty by self-directed and guided-learning through playful exploration. My past research has found that children are more interested in exploring events that are confounded or events that are surprising with respect to prior beliefs, and children are less likely to explore functions following direct instruction to a particular event. What these studies have not yet investigated is how immediate curiosity relates to longer-term learning, nor have they asked how the factors that drive curiosity differ across communities.
The proposed empirical studies will take advantage of a technologically innovative Mobile Maker Center (MMC) that my collaborators and I developed. The MMC is a movable center that encourages children to engage in playful learning about the STEM fields, all while collecting a rich data set of children’s actions, emotions, and discovery during self- and guided-play. The MMC also connects my research to a diverse representation of children from both privileged and underserved communities (who are underrepresented in traditional developmental work). With the Jacob’s Foundation Research Fellowship, I will leverage the MMC to ask specific questions regarding how children from diverse backgrounds approach novel causal learning problems.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
An important challenge for informal STEM learning research is reaching a diverse community of future “young scientists”. Furthermore, theoretical approaches developed in the lab are only as strong as their application to real-world settings. By engaging with the public, reaching families and discussing our findings about the importance of early childhood education and involvement in STEM activities, our technologically innovative mobile-lab will connect directly to the communities it seeks to serve.
If we are going to understand how children choose to learn, then we must begin to characterize how learning depends on the sources for individual differences in exploratory biases. Contrasting findings across SES groups to help understand the potential individual differences in playful STEM learning approaches, and harnessing new technological innovations, allows the science to impact communities who would most benefit from the findings. The proposed research will bring us closer to having a formal, evidence-based understanding when and why playful learning can be deployed toward educational goals. Specifically, identifying factors that influence the drive for learning is particularly interesting because it could lead to understanding individual differences in childhood, with direct consequences for the development of training paradigms, new technological interventions, and educational practices internationally.

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