Little Pilots, Big Study

There’s a jet plane in Mary Ann Cofrin Hall—in the psychology lab, to be exact. It’s colorful, about three feet tall and crafted of high-density plastic body foam with a padded seat. The “pilot” is about three years old, wearing a “helmet” of blinking LEDs with lots of protruding wires. He’s busy studying a computer screen and obviously enjoying himself. Nearby, an undergraduate student monitors the pilot’s brain activity. Mom is watching nearby through a two-way mirror.

Child research subject wearing EEG cap.The space that’s being explored is between his ears. Technically what’s being recorded is a neurophysiological reading of brain activity through an electroencephalographic (EEG) “hat.”
The whole experience is completely painless and takes about 45 minutes— about the same as a haircut.

This isn’t just a solo flight. (He’s approximately pilot number 300 and counting). It’s all part of a multi-cultural research project developed by UW-Green Bay psychology and human development professors Sawa Senzaki and Jason Cowell.  The title is impressive: The Role of Parental Socialization in the Neurophysical Development of Moral Evaluation Across Cultures.
And what’s really enabled this project to take off is a $365,500 grant from The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s a prestigious grant with an award rate of about seven percent (comparable to being accepted to Yale or MIT).

Psychology faculty Sawa Senzaki fitting subject with EEG cap

Sawa Senzaki fitting subject with EEG cap

“I came here in 2013; my research is about cultural psychology,” Senzaki says. “I’m interested in looking at how parenting is shaped in different cultural ways.” She’s currently an associate professor and has worked to expand psychological research to more diverse cultures. “Only 12 percent of the world’s population (primarily the U.S., Canada and Western Europe) represents 96 percent of all psychological research data.”

As a leading researcher in cultural psychology, Senzaki also focuses on both the changes and similarities that occur in children as they age and how those changes can be impacted by cultural and social influences. “What I am interested in personally is how parenting shapes these different cultural ways childhood development is impacted.”

Psychology faculty Jason Cowell studys child's brain activity

Jason Cowell with participant

Cowell, currently an assistant professor, arrived on campus in 2015 with an interest in developmental neuroscience—a new field that “looked” at the brains of children as they’re starting to learn skills like moral decision making. What brought them together was the classic area of psychological theory, “nature vs. nurture” and the intersection of their mutual interest in child development.

So how does one measure neurophysical development in three-to five-year-olds?

“We show them cartoons,” Cowell explains, displaying the screen our pilot was viewing. We’re looking at how children’s brains react to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acts in cartoons.”

Cowell also credits UW-Green Bay as being a great fit for nurturing an academic’s professional goals. “Why this is a cool thing is that Sawa and I have done a lot of research in our past, so when we came here, we wanted to continue. The best way to keep research going is to bring in external funding. So, we spent a couple of years applying for several grants and finally received a really good one. This is a unique opportunity for the University.”

Another positive aspect of this particular grant is its focus on undergraduates as paid assistants.

The undergraduate assistants play with the kids and get them used to the lab. “It’s the really cool part because the undergrads do all of this and they really do a good job.”

UW-Green Bay junior psychology major Kate Sorebo took advantage of this rare opportunity. “I was browsing through the Psychology program want ads and came across Prof. Senzaki’s ad for a research assistant. I got in contact with her, had an interview and the rest is history!”

Sorebo appreciates the effort it takes just to put little “pilots” in the plane. “The kids that come in are such intelligent and energetic participants, it’s always a good time.” Plus, this experience is shaping her future plans to go to graduate school and focus on educational psychology with an emphasis on how children with special needs learn and grow as individuals.

And as far as the University goes, Senzaki envisions their research as the launching pad to even greater things. “It’s a three-year grant so we’ll be doing several different variances of this project, including international collaborations in Japan.”

Senzaki also sees the project enhancing regional and national awareness of UW-Green Bay’s research capabilities. “Part of the benefit of the grant is to expose students to opportunities that are on par with some of the most prestigious universities in the country.” With more than 800 psychology and human development majors and minors currently on campus, this is one little pilot program that’s really taking off.

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