A ‘Word’ About Research

Museum-based Project Engages Broader Public on Language Science

The best museums are such a delight that visitors barely notice they’re leaving with widened perspectives to complement souvenir mugs.

Traditional research studies can be quite different for participants—mystifying, maybe a little boring. And rather than knowledge, the takeaway is money or points in a college class.

A new partnership between researchers at UMD, Howard and Gallaudet universities and D.C.’s recently launched Planet Word museum mashes up the two experiences, where the learning and fun facilitate the science and extend the study pool beyond campus.

Starting this summer, student researchers at the Language Science Station lab in Planet Word are inviting guests to participate in several brief studies: one aimed at understanding how knowledge of a subject influences language use, another examining what non-signing people understand about American Sign Language, and a third exploring how the brain guesses what’s next in a sentence.

“This has to be fun and educational for visitors,” says Charlotte Vaughn, assistant research professor in UMD’s Maryland Language Science Center and leader of the overall project, which is supported by a $470,000 award from the National Science Foundation.

More studies are planned, and the researchers’ broader goals are to expand the diversity of linguistic researchers and develop best practices for meaningful, engaging research in public settings.

“We’re exploring how to change participants’ experience for the better while maintaining scientific rigor,” Vaughn says. “Guests are excited to participate in real research during their visit to the museum—research that will result in new findings and knowledge.”


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