Jessica Cantlon, associate professor of psychology and developmental neuroscience chair at CMU, is a collaborator on the project and has worked with the olive baboons at Seneca Park Zoo for more than 10 years.
Cantlon’s experience with this specific group of animals paired with DeLong’s research background and previous work with K-12 outreach provided a golden opportunity for directly engaging elementary school students with their research—engagement that has the potential to inspire and diversify the next generation of scientists.
Rather than giving a lecture, the group opts for active participation so students can get involved with the research. They present their project to students and ask them to create their own games to test the baboons’ cognition. Then, the students take the next step of writing the code for their proposed game using Scratch, which is later translated into the higher-level code languages the team uses at the zoo.
By creating an inclusive coding experience that creatively addresses girls’ scientific interests, the group hopes the experience sparks a curiosity in students to further explore STEM topics and, eventually, pursue a career in STEM. The group has conducted one pilot program thus far at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, and the goal is to expand to other local schools.
“Kids are pretty patchy in terms of their interest in computers and technology. It appeals more to some kinds of students than others, and it may seem maybe a little bit exclusive,” said Cantlon. “But, if we can show them that some of this technology is really a tool for studying the things that they already think are intriguing, like animals, it might help form a bridge among different areas of science and foster their interest.”