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Teaching the Science of Language

January 7, 2016

Teaching the Science of Language

Student and Young boy learning about the larynx
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Students in the course "Training in Science Education Outreach" spend most of their class time at COSI (Center of Science and Industry) performing science demos with museum visitors and working in a research “pod.” Not exactly a traditional class setting, but that’s the point, according to Laura Wagner, associate professor, psychology, and one of three faculty members team-teaching the course.

“The course’s main aim is to teach undergraduate and graduate students how to speak to the public about science, focusing specifically on language science,” said Wagner. “And what better place to do it than in a science museum?”

Collaborating with Wagner on the course is Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, associate professor, linguistics, and Leslie Moore, associate professor, Department of Teaching and Learning, Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology. The course is cross-listed in psychology, linguistics and teaching and learning.

Leslie Laura Kathryn at COSI Language Pod

“Linguistics is a particularly good science to bring to science museums because language provides an accessible entry point to science for the general public," said Campbell-Kibler. “We have our students wear lab coats precisely because language is a science.”

In its fourth year, the course requires students to work up to six hours a week at COSI, demonstrating concepts from the science of language through the use of portable exhibits and several research "toys" created collaboratively by Wagner, Campbell-Kibler, Moore and other research scientists from Ohio State’s Buckeye Language Network (BLN), a consortium of language researchers from 16 different departments across Ohio State. The demonstrations provide accessible, interactive illustrations of concepts, ranging from basic physical and biological facts about speech (the physiology of the larynx; the anatomy and physiology of the human ear) to complex phenomena such as how language conveys meaning from one mind to another.

Marissa LaVigna, a fourth year student majoring in speech and hearing science, signed up for the fall semester.  

“It’s one thing to read course material and talk about it in class,” said LaVigna. “But when you’re on the floor at COSI, you’ve really got to know your stuff. You have to be able to talk about very complex concepts to all age groups and keep people interested.”

According to Moore, there are clear strategies for how to approach effective science teaching to multiple audiences.

“Students learn how scientists talk and then we help them learn how to adjust the delivery of the content,” explained Moore. “As the interaction between the student and the visitor unfolds, the student adjusts the activity to the age, comprehension and interest level of a given visitor and presents the concepts in a pyramid structure, starting with the core message and broadening to more complex knowledge. At first, our students are concerned with themselves being teachers, but over time, they shift and begin to tune in to the learners.”

Student Brandon Niciu describes working on the floor and in the Language Pod as one of the best experiences of his college career.

“Being able to get out on the floor and teach people a little bit of what I know is an awesome feeling. The best part is when a kid’s face lights up and you can tell they are genuinely interested and want to know more about the amazing things we present at the pod.”

When not on the floor, the students work in The Language Pod, one of several COSI research pods called the Labs in Life, part of a larger COSI exhibit on the life sciences. The pods are glass-enclosed research spaces where museum visitors can observe actual scientific research as it is occurring.

One of the primary aims of the Training in Science Education Outreach Course, says Campbell-Kibler, is to develop future scientists and other language science professionals. COSI is one of the few science centers in the country with working research laboratories housed within its walls, allowing visitors a firsthand exposure to the research process.

“The students in this course are fully integrated with the research component of the lab: they complete human subjects research ethics training and are key personnel on lab research projects. They also receive training in the recruitment of museum visitors to be participants in ongoing research.”

Michelle Bullock is a student research assistant in both the College of Education and Human Ecology and the Department of Linguistics. Because of her involvement in the course, she is now creating her own American Sign Language demonstration.

“I love doing ASL demos. The best part is when I get to watch guests walk away practicing the signs. I had one little girl who already knew the sign for love and when I showed her the sign for mother she signed it with me then signed love and pointed to her mom. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to share a little bit of American Sign Language with the guests at COSI.”

Joshua Sarver, senior director of experiences for COSI, believes that the partnership between COSI and Ohio State has been a win-win. “COSI guests are able to engage with working scientists in a robust and meaningful way, while Ohio State researchers (faculty and students) have found that they can greatly expand the amount of research they can conduct by working on-site at COSI.”

So, what do COSI visitors think of the student demonstrations?

Data from a 2014 survey of more than 3,000 COSI visitors reveal that 98 percent of COSI visitors interviewed after a student-led science demonstration stated that the experience enhanced their visit to COSI.

“Working here at COSI is much more difficult than working in a lab on campus,” said Wagner. “We have a strong educational obligation to the public – we talk to thousands of visitors a year and we need to get it right.”

Read more about this course and The Language Pod in “Linguistics in a Science Museum: Integrating Research, Teaching and Outreach at the Language Sciences Research Lab,” in the journal, Language & Linguistics Compass (October 20, 2015),

The Buckeye Language Network (BLN) is a consortium of language researchers from 16 different departments across the university. The goal of the network is to encourage collaboration and foster language-related initiatives in research, curriculum and service.

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