In a suite of rooms on the first floor of Franklin & Marshall College's Life Sciences & Philosophy Building, children play with toys and flip through storybooks while infants engage in imitation games with researchers.
The Developmental and Experience Center, or DAX Center, launched this semester, bringing under one umbrella three labs exploring different foundational aspects of development: morality, social learning, and problem solving.
"We each have independent labs, but take similar approaches to our research so we can work collaboratively," said Associate Professor of Psychology Krista Casler, who specializes in child development and has been at F&M since 2005.
Casler's new colleagues are moral values researcher Josh Rottman and social cognition researcher Lauren Howard, both of whom are assistant professors of psychology and scientific and philosophical studies of mind.
"We all study children, but we take slightly different approaches in our research and focus on different age groups," Howard said. "A center like this is quite common at larger institutions, but significantly less so at smaller ones. It's a unique opportunity for F&M to have this center as a resource."
In her lab, Howard studies how children learn and remember in social contexts. "I'm interested in how learning from other people seems to be better than incidental non-social learning" she said.
The center provides opportunities for faculty and student researchers to connect with families in the greater Lancaster community. This collaboration will allow both scientists and the public to better understand the nuances of child development, Rottman said.
"I'm interested in the social experiences that lead children to think that certain actions are either wrong or O.K.," Rottman said. "My current research examines whether children trust certain kinds of people more (for example, smart or friendly people) when they are learning new moral information."
The three child development research labs rely on volunteer families from the local community. The studies are rewarding and fun for babies and children, and parents derive satisfaction from helping to advance developmental science.
"I’ve been bringing families into my lab for the last decade, but by joining with Josh and Lauren, our three labs can offer so much more " Casler said.
Casler's work focuses on how children perceive tools and how they learn to use them.
"How do we decide what objects are for?" she said. "For example, a fork could be used as a comb, but there are social reasons that go beyond physical features when we pick out tools."
Central to the success of the DAX Center are F&M students who are interested in gaining research experience that will prepare them for success beyond their undergraduate careers.
"We collaborate with students as experimenters or observers, as well as data collectors and statistical analyzers," Casler said. "From basic office work to sophisticated research assistance, our goal is to usher students through the scientific process."
To learn more, visit the DAX Center.