UW News

September 30, 2004

UW lands $12.4 million federal grant to create science of learning center

An interdisciplinary team of University of Washington researchers has been awarded $12.4 million by the National Science Foundation to establish a center to investigate how humans learn and to create environments that will help prepare people of all ages for future learning.

The new LIFE Center, short for Learning in Informal and Formal Environments, will be directed by John Bransford, a UW professor of education, who will work with four co-principal investigators at the UW, neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl and psychologist Andrew Meltzoff, co-directors of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, and Philip Bell and Reed Stevens, education professors who direct the cognitive studies in education program.

In addition, the center will collaborate with researchers at Stanford University and SRI International, an independent research institute based in Menlo Park, Calif.

The UW center is one of three being funded by NSF to serve as hubs for a national network of research focused on learning. The two other centers will be headquartered at Boston University and Carnegie Mellon University. Over all, NSF awarded $36.5 million to fund the three centers for three years. Additional renewal funding could raise the total to $69.9 million for five years. Of that, the UW center could receive $24.9 million.

“The LIFE Center is being created to understand and advance human learning through a simultaneous focus on implicit learning and the brain, informal, and formal learning,” said Bransford. “I am excited by our team, which involves research scholars from a variety of traditions that have rarely had the opportunity to work collaboratively. Our expertise spans neurobiological, psychological and sociocultural approaches and also incorporates pioneering work in augmenting human learning through new technologies.”

Research will be conducted on three intersecting tracks – implicit learning and the brain, informal learning, and formal learning. Implicit learning happens automatically in all kinds of settings and is the way people learn language, social behavior and culture from infancy to adulthood. Informal learning takes place outside of school settings such as in the workplace, in parent and peer interactions and in children’s everyday activities. Formal learning occurs in the classroom and this line of research also will focus on designing learning environments and preparing people for future learning.

Other UW researchers involved in the center come from the psychology department and the College of Engineering. Initially, nearly 60 professors, research scientists and graduate students from the UW, Stanford and SRI International will be involved in the center’s investigations and that number is expected to increase as the research evolves and attracts new collaborators, according to Bransford.

The LIFE Center has an ambitious research agenda that includes 29 separate studies that will be launched in the first year. Others will be added in subsequent years. Among the first-year projects are:

• Studies of what motivates children to play video games and what they learn from the experience. Games are sometimes considered frivolous, but they are definitely motivating and often quite complex. One goal is to harness some of the design feature of video games and use them to teach important content and skill that student need.

• An examination of social interaction and foreign language learning to see how well infants from English-speaking families can distinguish the sounds of Spanish after being exposed to it in social settings, and whether the quality of the social interactions predict how well they learn.

• A study of young people’s everyday encounters with science both inside and outside the classroom and how exposure to children’s books, trips to museums, television programs such as “CSI,” movies and school instruction shape children’s ideas about science. This study will provide insight into why only some children learn science deeply or consider becoming a scientist.

• An investigation that will explore the connection between language and mathematics in adults and children. Initial studies have shown that people learn basic arithmetic in their first language but have trouble retrieving this material when using a second language, thus slowing down mathematical performance.

• A study of how families handle common but important financial tasks in daily life, such as saving for college, retirement, investments, credit and insurance, and how children participate and what they learn about money matters.

• An examination of how people naturally organize their knowledge around people as well as topics with the goal of developing technologies that increase learning by creating environments where students interact with experts in various fields.

• A study using neuroimaging to explore the role of imitation in learning to understand what brain regions are activated when people by watching an action performed by another person. The research has implications for understanding the brain basis of human empathy and for hands-on learning in the classroom.

“One of the unique aspects about the Life Center is the breadth of the people who are participating,” said Bransford. “We are all committed to creating ‘conceptual collisions’ that will challenge each of us to look at problems from different perspectives. By juxtaposing different theories, methodologies and tool for research, we believe the center will have a significant impact on people’s lives.”

Congressmen Brian Baird and Jim McDermott lauded the new center:

“As a clinical psychologist, I applaud the National Science Foundation for funding this center and the University of Washington for conceiving its creation,” said Baird.  “Expanding our understanding of the learning process will undoubtedly improve education, healthcare, business and a host of other fields.  Again, I congratulate the University and its faculty on this achievement.”

“I can think of few issues that are more important to our nation and our future than unlocking the secrets of how humans learn,” McDermott said.  “And the UW will be in the forefront of pioneering research with this important grant award.  Bravo to the UW team for making Seattle proud, again.”