Testing my kids – for science

It was a bleak November night. It was already completely dark and the rain was a sloppy rain, with splashes and poor visibility on already traffic-clogged streets during the dinner hour. From the back seat all I heard was “how long is this going to take?” and “why are we doing this, what is it anyway?” And my answer was “it’s for science!”

We were on our way to the I-LABS building on the UW campus, a drive that’s always confusing even when it’s not dark and rainy. I had this great idea to drop off the older kids and fit this experiment in before anyone needed to be picked up. But the complaints were many.

Until we got there, and I heard instead, “oh I remember this.” We remembered it even better once we were in the lab itself, with curtained walls and a little computer and keyboard.


An early experiment, circa 2001.

This was one of many, many visits to the UW campus for kid-related science. Earlier this summer, I’d gotten a call for my middle daughter to participate in an early phase of a study that would eventually go to several schools and span several months. Her experiment helped the study designers check that all was working well, and even to measure the difference of her beliefs over a 10-minute break, much shorter than the school program would test. While there, in a tiny warren of rooms, they spotted my youngest and quickly found a trained grad student to give her a completely unrelated test for her age group.

We’ve been doing these experiments for about 14 years now, signing up in the 3 different hospitals/facilities in which I have had babies here in town. Though they always pay for our parking, finding the parking at the UW is no small feat. Getting there and scheduling is definitely a barrier for many parents. But for the times we’ve been able to say yes, we’ve had a great experience and used it to talk about everything from science and careers to what it’s like to be a student at college.

We’ve been in closed booths with headphones, in two-way mirror rooms with a play table of toys, and many others I don’t quite remember. On the recently rainy night, it was extra special because my daughter had taken the same test, a little simplified, when she was just 5. She was in a small cohort of kids who were prized repeat subjects, whom researchers could compare over the 4 years during which they’d been growing up. They asked if it would be okay to send a birthday card next year in thanks. A nice gesture that felt really good.

You can learn more about participating studies and sign up at https://studies.uw.edu.

This particular test is fun – how fast can you click the computer keyboard to show that you can quickly associate and change happy words and faces and not-happy words and faces. Yes, this test was doing something about gender and my child’s self-esteem and self-knowledge.

As I sat, quietly behind her, I watched her make choices with the keyboard. Sometimes faster than the voice could pronounce. Here’s where it got tricky for me. While the researchers were glad to measure how normally developing kids think about these things, my questions were close to the heart – did my child feel good about herself? Would I be able to see from my chair if she had good self-esteem?

I held my breath as she raced through the questions about did she like who she was, how she did in school, how she made friends and more.

It was not the focus of their study, how this particular research subject feels about herself, but relief and happiness and, I guess, hope was my reaction. She seemed to be confident in herself in all the questions. And when she chose Agree (and not Strongly Agree) about “did she always – or never – do something a certain way…” it seemed like she was using logic or maybe a little self-awareness. Other questions were equally interesting, and we had some good and sophisticated conversations about this on the way home.

A family of not-quite geeks, I’ve even sent my kids (reluctantly) to school on Show Your Husky or Cougar Pride Day in a purple and gold “I’m a UW Junior Scientist” t-shirt – the only local college gear we own. I insisted that this was even cooler than a sports jersey because it was unique and about what they study – rather than play – at college, and ultimately the geeky fashion was successful.

Although we’ve been called in by several departments at the UW, I will specifically call out I-LABS. I-LABS is the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, an interdisciplinary center dedicated to discovering the fundamental principles of human learning, with a special emphasis on early learning and brain development. http://ilabs.washington.edu/

We’ve really had fun doing these experiments. In the early days with just one, it was sometimes the only thing I did during the week apart from PEPS. With two, it seemed crazy, but of course my goal was to try to make things equal for my second baby. And with the third, we just were already really supportive of this work and liked to share in this incredibly unique opportunity in our community.


About the Author

Laura has earned her keep writing copy around town, editing other people’s words and thinking about how we tell our stories to each other. Laura knows her commas, mostly – and admires good writing everywhere. She is an MLIS with a deep interest in books for adults and children. At home, she is the mother of 3 inspiring and demanding kids, who often finds herself overcommitted, overwhelmed, overjoyed and overslept.

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