SILC Showcase

Showcase September 2012: Cross-Institutional Collaborations

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Cross-Institutional Collaborations

Linsey A. Smith1, Corinne A. Holmes2, Neon Brooks3, Nora S. Newcombe (PI)2

1Northwestern University, 2Temple University, 3University of Chicago

Cross-institutional collaborations in the SILC network have helped many graduate students and post-doctoral fellows do productive cutting-edge collaborative science. How does that work? One big advantage is access to resources from other institutions, such as:

  • ♦ Preexisting data sets
  • ♦ Various subject pools
  • ♦ Methodological materials
  • ♦ Empirically tested spatial assessments
  • ♦ Multiple PI, post-doc, & graduate student expertise

Ideas are generated through SILC’s networking events, such as the inter-student exchanges, iSLC conventions, and the annual SILC retreat. With the inclusion of multiple labs, ideas become working projects and methodologies are refined. Furthermore, SILC members are not confined to their respective institutions’ subject pools; child, undergraduate, and community data collection can occur concurrently at multiple SILC-affiliated institutions. Thus, the process of data collection is not only accelerated, but the subject pool is diversified.

So far, cross-institutional collaborations have taken three forms:

  1. Active collaborations
  2. Methodological collaborations
  3. Planned collaborations

Active collaborations are the most common (see map in Figure 1). Students, post-docs, and PI’s are involved in every stage of project development and execution. In methodological collaborations, SILC members may reach out to one another for expertise in stimuli or assessment design. Planned collaborations are just that, planned! Before costly and time-consuming action is taken, SILC members will discuss various courses of action and their hypothesized outcomes.

All active, methodological, and planned cross-institutional collaborations are depicted in the map below (Figure 1). Project descriptions for active and methodological collaborations are detailed for projects 2, 5, 7, and 9, respectively. Each description, voiced by a graduate student collaborator, elucidates on the origin of the collaboration, the current stage of the project, and the student’s role within the group. Each collaborator is an essential link in the research chain, yielding not only developments within the field, but relationships vital for collaborations in the future.

Below, a Temple University graduate student elaborates on his involvement in a methodological collaboration:

The collaboration with Northwestern has taken two forms. First, I have worked with Dedre Gentner and her lab to design the analogy/progressive alignment intervention used in the study. Second, I have worked with Matt Jacovina and David Rapp to design the outcome assessment we are using for both my experiment and an experiment they are conducting on contour maps.

~Steve Weisberg, 3rd year graduate student, Temple University

Figure 1: Collaboration Map

Figure 1. SILC cross-institutional and cross-SLC collaborations

Project Key:

  1. Rapid Learning in Children via Analogical Comparison. Dedre Gentner (SILC, NU); Susan C. Levine (SILC, UC); Sonica Dhillon (SILC, NU); Raedy Ping, Claire Bradley (SILC, UC); Ashley Poltermann, & Garrett Honke (SILC, NU).
  2. Structural Alignment in a Museum Learning Lab. Lauren Applebaum, Elizabet Spaepen, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Susan Levine (SILC, UC); & Dedre Gentner (SILC, NU).
  3. Sketch Worksheets. Maria Chang, Kenneth D. Forbus, Jeffrey Usher (SILC, NU), Basil Tikoff (SILC, UW-Madison), Bradley Sageman (SILC, NU).
  4. An analogical approach to teaching contour maps. Steven Weisberg (SILC, Temple); Dedre Gentner, David Rapp, & Matt Jacovina (SILC, NU).
  5. Development of a Mental Folding Assessment for Children. Justin Harris, Nora Newcombe (SILC, Temple); Raedy Ping, Susan Levine, & Joanna Schiffman (SILC, UC).
  6. Coordinating cross-sectioning efforts between Temple and UC. Kristin Gagnier (SILC, Temple); Raedy Ping, Chris Young (SILC, UC); & Kinnari Atit (SILC, Temple).
  7. Comparison and Contrast in Children’s Acquisition of Shape Categories. Linsey Smith, Micah Goldwater (SILC, NU); Raedy Ping (SILC, UC), & Bryan Matlen (PSLC, Carnegie Mellon).
  8. Perceptions of effort and distance estimation. Matthew E. Jacovina, David N. Rapp (SILC, NU); Steven Weisberg, Thomas Shipley (SILC, Temple); & Carol Ormand (Carleton College).
  9. Representing Space: Exploring the Relationships between Gesturing, Sketching, and Geoscience Understanding in Children. Bryan Matlen (PSLC, Carnegie Mellon); Kinnari Atit (SILC, Temple); Tilbe Goksun (SILC, University of Pennsylvania); Martina Rau, & Maria Ptouchkina (PSLC, Carnegie Mellon).
  10. (Planned) Psychosocial Effects and Mechanisms of Spatial Training. David Miller, David Uttal (SILC, NU); & Sian Beilock (SILC, UC).
  11. (Planned) Children's Question Asking on Spatial and Non-Spatial Tasks. Jamie Jirout (SILC, Temple); Raedy Ping, & Susan Levine (SILC, UC).
  12. (Planned) Spatializing Science Curricula. Jamie Jirout (SILC, Temple); Chris Young, & Susan Levine (SILC, UC).

Detailed Project Descriptions

PROJECT 2: Structural Alignment in a Museum Learning Lab

  • ♦ Affiliations: University of Chicago, Northwestern University
  • ♦ Collaborators (University and Center): Lauren Applebaum, Elizabet Spaepen, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Susan Levine (SILC, UC); & Dedre Gentner (SILC, NU).
  • ♦ Project start date: September 2009

In a study at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, IL, we used structural alignment to teach students in grades 3-6 about the importance of triangles for achieving stable structures. We did this in a classroom lab called City Science: Building Bridges, where classrooms of students learned about basic civil engineering principles in the context of building a bridge. During the course of the lab, students were able to build their own bridges out of construction materials called Uberstix.

In order to investigate the potential benefits of structural alignment, a museum staff member (facilitator) taught the students about the importance of triangles in strong bridges using one of two conditions: high-aligned or low-aligned. In both conditions the facilitator presented three components important to truss bridges (bridges made up of a series of triangles): a triangle, a square braced by a diagonal piece (forming a structure made up of two triangles), and a truss. In the high-aligned condition, the triangle was overlain on the braced square and both the triangle and the braced square were overlain on the truss. In the low-aligned condition, these alignments were not demonstrated. See Figure 2 for a schematic depiction of the two conditions.

Figure 2: Museum Training

Figure 2. Examples of the high-aligned and low-aligned conditions.

Preliminary results using logistic regression suggest that alignment may be beneficial during classroom instruction, particularly for students from low SES backgrounds. Overall, students in the high-aligned condition performed significantly better at posttest on the near transfer question, β = .69, p = .03, and marginally better on the far transfer question, β = .50, p = .09, even after controlling for pretest score, grade level, socioeconomic status, and gender. Because of the significant (near transfer) and marginally significant (far transfer) SES effect, we examined results for the two SES groups separately, and found that condition remained an important predictor for the low SES group (near transfer: β = .79, p = .03; far transfer: β = .63, p = .08), but not for the high SES group (near transfer: β = .49, p = .50; far transfer: β = .22, p = .67).

PROJECT 5: Development of a Mental Folding Assessment for Children

  • ♦ Affiliations: Temple University, University of Chicago
  • ♦ Collaborators (University and Center): Justin Harris, Nora Newcombe (SILC, Temple); Raedy Ping, Susan Levine, Joanna Schiffman (SILC, UC)
  • ♦ Project start date: May 2011

Paper folding is a classic psychometric test, which has also been studied using the techniques of cognitive science. However, it has been difficult to chart its development because existing assessments are too difficult for young children. We are developing two downward extensions of paper folding tests. One utilizes colorful paper with different colors on the two sides to ensure comprehension of the test (focused on visualizing the folding). The other involves having children watch us fold a piece of paper and punch a hole in the folded paper and then asking them to select a picture of what the paper would look like when it is unfolded (focused on visualizing unfolding). See Figure 3 for sample assessment items. Both tests are multiple choice with four possible answer choices. A new version of the test, incorporating items from both is in development. These tools will enable us to study the development of the skill of working with the relation of 2D and 3D spatial representations. We will also collect data from other spatial tasks to see how paper folding assessment scores are related to performance on other spatial measures.

Figure 3: Children's Mental Folding Task

Figure 3. Sample Assessment Item from Children’s Mental Folding Task

PROJECT 7: Comparison and contrast in children’s acquisition of shape categories

  • ♦ Affiliations: Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University
  • ♦ Collaborators (University and Center): Linsey Smith, Micah Goldwater (SILC, NU); Raedy Ping (SILC, UC); & Bryan Matlen (PSLC, CMU)
  • ♦ Project start date: February 2012

Early elementary national standards in mathematics emphasize that children learn the defining rules of geometric shapes such as ‘triangles are three-sided, closed figures.’ However, young children’s representations of shape categories like triangles are often based on perceptual matches to typical exemplars (such as equilateral triangles), rather than based on the category’s defining rules (Burger & Shaughnessy, 1986). Prior work within SILC demonstrates that children’s developing shape categories are malleable and heavily influenced by pedagogical factors such as the type of instructional guidance offered and the variability of category exemplars (Fisher, 2011).

In this project, we build on prior research by exploring how the context in which exemplars are presented may influence category development. Specifically, we are investigating the unique contributions of comparison and contrast in young children’s shape category acquisition. Existing work demonstrates that guided comparison of exemplars from an object category encourages children to move beyond perceptual similarities and use relational and functional properties more relevant for categorization (e.g., Namy & Clepper, 2010); however, the role of contrast as a basis for identifying category structure has received less empirical attention. In our first experiment, which is still in progress, three- and four-year olds engage in a training task where they are invited Figure 4: Triangle Trainingto either compare exemplars of triangles, or contrast an exemplar and a non-exemplar (Figure 4). Before and after training, children complete a triangle-sorting task (Satlow & Newcombe, 1998), so that changes in their category structures can be observed. Preliminary evidence demonstrates that both kinds of training improve overall categorization. Further, children who receive contrast training tend to be more conservative in their generalizations at post-test, whereas those who compare exemplars become more liberal in their categorization behavior. These tentative findings suggest that while both comparison and contrast are useful in category learning, comparison may facilitate category expansion whereas contrast may encourage category refinement.



  • ♦ Fisher, K. R. (2011). Exploring the mechanisms of guided play in preschoolers' developing geometric shape concepts. (Doctoral Dissertation.) Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (Accession Order No. AAT 3440076)
  • ♦ Namy, L. L., & Clepper, L. (2010). The Differing Roles of Comparison and Contrast in Categorization. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 107, 291-305.
  • ♦ Satlow, E., & Newcombe, N. (1998). When is a triangle not a triangle? Young children's conceptions of geometric shapes. Cognitive Development, 13, 547-559.

PROJECT 9: Representing space: Exploring the relationships between gesturing, sketching, and geoscience understanding in children

  • ♦ Affiliations: Temple University, University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University
  • ♦ Collaborators (University and Center): Kinnari Atit (SILC, Temple); Tilbe Goksun (SILC, Penn); & Bryan Matlen, Martina Rau, Maria Ptouchkina (PSLC, CMU)
  • ♦ Project start date: iSLC 2011 (March 2011)

Learning in the science domains (e.g., geoscience, chemistry, etc.) requires the ability to think spatially. Spatial representational tools, such as gesture, have been shown to ground students’ understanding of spatial relationships. However, despite theoretical reasons to hypothesize a relation between the use of gesture and novices’ science understanding, few studies provide strong empirical evidence linking these factors. The primary aim of this study was to explore Figure 5: Plate tectonicswhether the use of gesture was associated with children’s understanding of spatially intensive geoscience concepts. In addition, we examined whether sketching – another spatial representational tool – was related to gesturing and geoscience understanding. Eight- to sixteen-year-old children (N = 27, M = 11.79 yrs) were provided instruction about the causal mechanisms of mountain and volcano formation (see Figure 5) and were then interviewed as a measure of comprehension. In addition, children were asked to sketch a dynamic geological scene. Analyses of children’s responses to the interview questions revealed significant positive correlations between children’s knowledge of geoscience concepts, their spontaneous production of iconic, content-relevant gestures, and the proportion of geological relations they sketched. These findings suggest that gesture may influence novices’ thinking in spatially intensive STEM disciplines and that spatial representational tools - such as sketching and gesturing - may facilitate understanding of science concepts through similar mechanisms.

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