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Spotlight Feature on Graduate Student Naomi Polinsky: Bridging Psychological and Learning Sciences with mBots

girl smiling in pink dress

DevSci Fellow and third-year Cognitive Science student, Naomi Polinsky

Northwestern’s Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci), partnered with the Center for Transdisciplinary Training to design a fellowship for Northwestern graduate students passionate about working on transdisciplinary research projects. The fellowship focuses on creating new methods and approaches to answer significant questions. This year’s fellowship winner is Naomi Polinsky, a graduate student in Cognitive Psychology with a specialization in learning sciences. Polinksy has an established interest in children’s development in STEM fields and how children learn about these topics in environments outside of the classroom. 

The project Polinksy will take on as a DevSci Fellow combines her experience and knowledge in cognition, developmental science and education.   Polinsky has two main lines of work through her current capacity as a graduate student. The first is the Tinkering Reflection and Engineering Learning (TRAEL) project, focusing on child engagement with materials, parent-child conversation, and STEM learning at the Chicago Children’s Museum. The second is a spatial study informally known as the Touch Screen study, where children use iPads to play spatially heavy games to help researchers understand the potential of touch-screen gaming applications for the development of spatial skills. The project Polinsky proposed bridges both spatial cognition and child learning in informal settings. The fellowship project will use Makeblock’s mBots to observe how children work through problem solving to achieve a goal, and how the fun and tangible tech of mBots can be cognitively engaging.  

Programmable mBot by Makeblock

With the wide variety of tools and technologies available to children aimed at teaching STEM or STEAM, it can be unclear how to optimize the use of this tech for children to learn the most they can from them. The project aims at figuring out what type of scaffolding or instructions children need in problem solving environments, so that children can learn to do this across different settings. Playing with the mBots is an inherently visual process that requires problem solving to make the robot move. The children who program the mBots will be able to directly see the consequences of their decisions on the way the robot moves. With the guidance of professors David Uttal and Michael Horn, who offer their unique expertise on spatial thinking and the design of learning spaces, Polinksy plans to use this fellowship to continue studying STEM development in informal spaces by using both learning sciences and psychological approaches.