I started working at the Princeton Baby Lab as a freshman and have been met with this face every time I tell someone where I work:
A lab for “baby” (aka, undergraduate) researchers? A lab where you experiment on babies? Is it safe? Do you do that Little Albert thing?
The answer is most easily answered by what’s on our sign in the psychology building: “Toddler Language Development Lab,” but that’s a lot less fun to say. Essentially we study different ways that children, from infants to 5 or 6 year olds, learn how to speak, how they interpret what they hear from the world around them, and, most recently, how bilingual children process and learn language. We have graduate students who are studying everything from how the infant directed speech – or, baby talk – effects their language processing, to if 5 year olds can improve their understanding of quantity words with some help.
But how do we do it? Researchers that work with babies have the cutest and wiggliest subjects on the face of the earth, often with really short attention spans. So, for babies we have them watch videos of what the researcher is testing and take a video of the baby. Later, an undergrad will go in and code every movement of their eyes second by second (yes, I have done it, no, it is not fun) and we extrapolate what they were paying attention to and thinking by what they were looking at on the screen. A long, but effective process.
It’s easier for the older kids, basically we design a game around the phenomenon we’re testing and ask them questions throughout to test their understanding of the concept. I ran one of these experiments this past semester where the child, a turkey hand puppet, and I would learn some new words. It was always an experience to say the least.
While the research is fun, the babies are hands down the best part of lab. Part of running experiments with children is entertaining them before the experiment starts and the parents sign paperwork. So upwards of 80% of what I do in lab is hang out and play with kids of all ages. It’s the best job to hold on campus, walking into lab and running into an enthusiastic 3-year-old is always energizing, and there’s nothing better than being able to spend half an hour away from the fast pace of the university and color with a kid for a while.