What does it take to ignite a child’s interest in learning? How can that interest be nurtured throughout childhood? How do you turn that interest into academic achievement in high school? How do you transition these early interests into college and career choices? And how do you translate all of this into preparing the next generation of scientists?

The Activation Lab, a collaboration of the Learning Research Development Center (LRDC) at the University of Pittsburgh and the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California Berkeley, is tackling these challenging questions and also designing possible solutions. Led in Pittsburgh by Dr. Kevin Crowley, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE) and Dr. Christian Schunn, Professor of Psychology and Senior Scientist at LRDC, the Activation Lab works to understand and assess when and how students become engaged and interested in learning and to design solutions that connect in-school and out-of-school learning experiences so that students become activated towards learning and maintain their interests in key disciplines throughout high school, while choosing which college degree to pursue, and on into professional life.

What is Activation and How Does it Happen?

According to Dr. Crowley, activation works best when students are provided engaging learning environments at that critical time in grade school or middle school when they would typically begin to lose interest. Often, children are exposed to intriguing hands-on learning experiences out of school and more staid, academic classroom environments in school. Both are extremely valuable in students’ overall learning development. The challenge is that students often do not recognize that what thrills them in an out-of-school museum visit or field trip is directly connected to what they are exploring in depth in the classroom. Because it is difficult for students to make that cognitive connection and classrooms may not show it to them, the team at the Activation Lab is gathering information, providing assessments, and designing models so that, eventually, communities like Pittsburgh can build a coordinated infrastructure that connects and enriches both in-school and out-of-school programs, providing students with a well-rounded and engaging educational experience—an experience that activates their innate capacity to develop interests and nurtures their passions for learning.

Initially, according to Crowley and Schunn, the Activation Lab team wanted to determine two things: What is this state of activation and how can it be linked to specific experiences from the perspective of the child? And, how can in-school and out-of-school learning be coordinated toward shared goals of activating children’s interest in and decision to pursue a specific discipline?

According to Crowley, findings have shown that many children have decided whether they like a discipline or not by age 11.

“We find that almost all people currently in science knew they were interested when they entered high school,” Crowley says.

He cites evidence gathered from a large and diverse group of science professionals who recall earliest moments of engagement ranging from a connection with nature or observing birds to practicing astronomy to tinkering with household objects.

Early Results are Promising

It appears that this type of “early intervention” is working. Dr. Schunn is leading the assessment of the Activation Lab’s recent study that focused on activating students to science in Pittsburgh and California’s Bay Area. So far, the effort has yielded some interesting results regarding the long-term interest of activated students relative to their non-activated peers. Students who have been motivated and encouraged to develop an interest in science are more likely to do better in school, to want to participate in optional science activities (museum visits, after school programs, etc.), and to pursue the discipline once they have a choice to do so – in high school and beyond.

Results of the assessment process are to be released in August of this year. The Activation Lab team plans to  use their combined expertise to take these experiences that most students encounter by chance – the museums and other hands-on learning environments, for example – and translate them to in-school classroom experiences and systematic efforts in communities to promote mass accessibility for grade school and middle school students.

You can Help Activate Kids in Pittsburgh

Plans are in the works for a similar effort, focused in Pittsburgh, to understand what it would take to build a learning infrastructure that activates children’s interest in technology and the arts, in addition to science. On Thursday, July 26th, The Sprout Fund and the Activation Lab will host members of the Kids+Creativity movement for a collaborative discussion about how the work of the Activation Lab can be applied to the learning ecosystem in Greater Pittsburgh. The event is free and open to the public. Register online to attend.

For more information on the Activation Lab, visit www.activationlab.org.

Written by Sherri Knight