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UCL Grand Challenge (2018- 2019): What are you looking for? Development of a novel spatial memory test for children.

melanie.koelbel.1516 October 2019

Written by Melanie Kölbel, 3rd year PhD student at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (GOSICH), researching sleep in sickle cell anaemia and Mina Jeon, 3rd year PhD student in the department of Psychology and Human Development at the Institute of Education (IoE), researching sleep and cognition in neurotypical and autistic children. Both are part of the Lifespan Learning and Sleep Laboratory (LILAS) at UCL.

Logo of the Visual Spatial Memory Task for children (VISMO-C) at the ages of 5 – 16 years old.

 

Tweet:

UCL Grand Challenges: @UCL_GC

Lifespan Learning and Sleep Laboratory (LILAS): @LILAS_Lab

Mina Jeon:@MinaJeon12 


Think about the following. How many times have you asked yourself or your child(ren)?

  • “Where is my/your […] ?“ (<- insert any objects that you or your child(ren) misplace frequently in the brackets).
  • “I know I put […] here?” or “Don’t you remember where you put […] ?”(<- insert any objects that you misplace frequently in the brackets).
  • “Am I lost again?” I could swear it was that way.

How does a better spatial memory help children? Certainly, it helps them to be successful in STEM.

In the early years, motor development enables a child to explore the world around them. Exploration of the new world helps the child to develop the relationship between objects and places and, therefore, the maturation of spatial cognition (Postma & Ham, 2016). Already at the age of 3-months, young children show an understanding of object misplacement (Hayne et al., 1991). At 4-years of age, children are able to use landmarks as clues to find their way around (Waismeyer & Jacobs, 2013). Spatial cognition has been shown to play an important role in the development of creativity and aids successful expertise development in the domains of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) (Kell et al., 2013; Lubinski, 2010; Wai, Lubinski & Benbow, 2009). Unfortunately, it is often neglected in educational assessments (Kell & Lubinski, 2013).

Have you seen my dots?

Have you or your child looked for dots recently? One of the tests available to assess spatial memory in children is the Dot Locations Test in the Children’s Memory Scale (CMS) (Cohen, 1997). The child has to remember the locations of either 6 or 8 dots over three trials. After a learning stage, the dots need to be recalled on two occasions: (1) immediate after a distractor was shown and (2) after a long delay (20 ~ 30 minutes) to assess the child’s visual spatial memory abilities. The test appears to have a low ecological validity, since it is less generalizable to a real-life setting. From our current experience the test does not seem to be as useful for typical developing children as for children who have an obvious visual or spatial memory difficulties and therefore might underestimate a child’s true performance, especially during the early years.

Pictorial representation of the Dots Location Task for children at the ages of 5-8 years (6 dots) and 9 – 16 years (8 dots) in the Children’s Memory Scale (CMS).

 

Why not develop a new spatial memory task that is more ecologically valid?

We applied for the UCL Grand Challenges Doctoral Students Small Grants Scheme to receive funding to create a fun, ecologically valid and easy to administer test for children to assess their spatial memory. We decided to create a booklet that shows two scenes of an organised and disorganised bedroom with different objects in it. The test follows the Dot Locations principle, whereby the child has to remember the locations of 7 target objects over three trials. After a learning phase, the objects need to be recalled on two occasions: (1) immediate after a distractor was shown and (2) after a long delay (20 ~ 30 minutes). The reason behind our choice of organised and disorganised bedroom scenes is that the bedroom is a place where children keep their belongings/possessions and are generally most familiar with. The organisation of the bedroom could give us a better understanding on how objects are best remembered depending on the environment they are in. The CMS lacks this kind of information. An important implication of the newly developed visual spatial memory test is that by knowing how a child can remember things in either an organised and/or disorganised way, it can help us to create targeted future interventions.

(1) Top left: VISMO-C with Manual, stimulus, record form and consent form; (2) Top right: Mina and myself after receiving the first copy of the test; (3) Down left: A child taking part in the assessment and (4) Down right: VISMO-C organised bedroom scene.

 

Challenge accepted: The challenge within the challenge. 

The first challenge we encountered was the design of the test. We had the idea and framework drafted, but we had no artistic knowledge and skills. Having the ability to draw like a 5-year-old clearly does not help. Certainly, it is great to have lots of ideas, but if you are missing the skills to bring these to life, it really puts a break on your work. We didn’t have time to spend hours learning the methods to design the room professionally. Luckily, a great friend and colleague, who is working as a freelancer in design, was able to help us out.

Once this was sorted, we faced the challenge of recruitment. We made flyers, which we handed out on high streets, parks and shopping centres, we even contacted schools, but responses were low. Often kids would be excited if we approached families and were willing to take part, but parents were more reluctant and never got in contact with us. What really helped in the end was the willingness of colleagues and families we work with to spread the word and to engage their friends in this research. Part of the research also assesses their children’s sleep and general cognitive abilities and parents were interested in finding this out too.

Recruitment flyer for the study.

The challenge that still persists is the assessment of a child’s spatial memory skill in a real-life setting. It was our goal to take children to the British Museum for an hour and to walk a maze with them to find out if they can retrieve the way to get to the targeted masterpieces. However, parents often could not find the time to come in. Unexpected closures of our planned routes within the museum and crowdedness made it impossible to fulfil this part of the challenge. In psychology, history taking is very important and can aid the understanding of underlying problems (Postma & Ham, 2016). Therefore, we aim to ask parents specific questions regarding their understanding of their child’s daily spatial memory performance. Working together on this project has shown us that one should not be afraid to ask, and that teamwork can combine multiple skills and make something incomplete complete. We are excited to start analysing the data soon and hope that the VISMO-C will be a useful measurement to test a child’s spatial memory performances in the future, especially in the early years.

The recruitment is still ongoing and your child will receive a £10 voucher for participation.

Please get in contact with Mina Jeon (mina.jeon.12@ucl.ac.uk) and Melanie Kölbel (melanie.koelbel.15@ucl.ac.uk).


Acknowledgement:

  • UCL and the UCL Grand Challenge Scheme for providing us with the funding to make the project possible.
  • Special thanks to the continuous support of our supervisors Professor Fenella Kirham and Dr. Dagmara Dimitriou
  • Katja Dallmann for helping us designing the rooms and objects for VISMO-C.
  • Celia Brenchley, for her advice and valued experience in educational psychology.
  • Special thanks to all the families and children who have played the game with us.
References:
Cohen, M. J. (1997). Children’s memory scale. Administration manual. San Antonio, Texas: The Psychological Corporation.
Hayne, H., Rovee-Collier, C., & Borza, M. A. (1991). Infant memory for place information. Memory & Cognition, 19(4), 378–386.
Kell, H. J., Lubinski, D., Benbow, C. P., & Steiger, J. H. (2013). Creativity and technical innovation: Spatial ability’s unique role. Psychological science, 24(9), 1831-1836.
Kell, H. and Lubinski, D. (2013). Spatial Ability: A Neglected Talent in Educational and Occupational Settings. Roeper Review, 35(4), pp.219-230.
Lubinski, D. (2010). Spatial ability and STEM: A sleeping giant for talent identification and development. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(4), pp.344-351.
Postma, A. and Ham, I. (2016). Neuropsychology of Space Spatial Functions of the Human Brain. Amsterdam: Academic Press, pp.309-352.
Wai, J., Lubinski, D. and Benbow, C. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), pp.817-835.
Waismeyer, A. S., & Jacobs, L. F. (2013). The emergence of flexible spatial strategies in young children. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 232–242.

Dr Giles Yeo “Why research matters and how to share it”

Kerry A Kite22 February 2019

Written by Emeline Rougeaux, PhD student at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. Emeline is an avid proponent of sustainable living and enjoys travelling and being outdoors.

Last month we had the pleasure of receiving Dr Giles Yeo, genetic endocrinologist, for a talk on Public Engagement here at ICH. You might know Dr Yeo from his appearances on BBC shows such as Trust Me, I’m A Doctor or Horizon. When he is not discussing the dirty truths behind clean eating or whether genes make you fat on screen, you can find him studying the brain control of body weight at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Yeo opened his presentation by stating that, as scientists, we have to engage with the media especially today. His research has revealed that humans have little choice with regards to obesity and that genetics have a big influence on our bodies’ weight and food behaviours. Do the public always believe him? Unfortunately, no. Yet, as said by the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, whom Dr Yeo quotes, “when different experiments give you the same results, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science. It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.” So, why is there such a lack of faith in science from the public?
According to Dr Yeo, we often end up having to frame science against faith. Some scientists believe it is not about faith, but in reality, all of us have to rely on faith every day. He gives the example of trusting that our car brakes will work when we press on them, we trust that experts designed them and tested them so that other non-experts can use them with the belief that they will work when needed. Similarly, we trust that a plane will fly (using something other than magic). While as scientists we understand that scientific consensus is key, it takes a long time to obtain. We all know how long it can take to go from a research problem, to findings, and then on to a possible solution. The problem, according to Dr Yeo, is that humans are impatient and this creates a vacuum of knowledge, which gets filled with alternative facts.
As a result, we get the likes of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow (Goop) and Eleanor Laura Davan Mills (Deliciously Ella). They sell ideas and products claiming certain health benefits, which although not supported by any scientific expertise or evidence, are gobbled up and regurgitated by hundreds of thousands of followers. Why do so many people believe what to others is so obviously false, Dr Yeo asks? According to him, it depends on who is saying it. When people with power or fame profess certain facts, it is difficult for the public to know who to believe. We should not, however, put these sorts of beliefs down to stupidity or ignorance, but should instead engage with these people and the public to discuss the evidence base. The best way to do this is through the media, and this is why we should engage with it when given the opportunity.
As scientists and researchers, we need to stand up for the truth. How we do this is important. Dr Yeo finds the perfect way to illustrate his point with one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons (like me, it turns out he is, a fan).

How should we structure our message? How can we speak to non-experts via the media? How we frame the message is important. Below are Dr Yeo’s suggestions on how we can do this effectively:
• Why? How? What? are good ways to frame the message. Why are you doing what you are doing? How have you chosen to answer the question? What have you found out?
• This framing can actually be used in all sorts of settings (grant applications, social events, etc.), but the amount of information you provide will vary between these and is critical.
• Difficulty: the type of audience will determine the level of difficulty of engagement with ‘academic specialist’ being the least difficult to engage with and ‘the general public’ the most difficult.
• Simplicity does not equal wrong: when we simplify the information we have, we make sure it remains correct.
• The medium chosen for your message will determine how much editorial control you have. Ranging from complete to no editorial control we have: speaking, writing, social media, radio and TV. Simplifying the message yourself in advance, by preparing your how-why-what elevator pitch, will allow you to keep more control.

Scientists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work, particularly to wider audiences and the public. Dr Yeo has found that television is an effective way to do this. While not all of us will be following this route with our research, he believes many of us will at one point in our careers be subject to interviews or invited to speak on television. His advice is to be ready, and what better way to do this than to practice explaining your research as ‘an elevator pitch’. Being able to deliver your research in a succinct form and in layman’s terms is a skill that will help not only with public and social media interaction, but also with career networking and job interviews.
Television is one of many ways for a researcher to engage with the public. In addition to television, Dr Yeo also gives public lectures, uses social media (although he highlights this can be a useful tool or a curse) and occasionally writes articles in newspapers such as the Sunday Times or the Daily Mail. Attending a writing or journalism course during your PhD is great way to learn how to communicate your research in an accessible and compelling way, which may also help with grant writing and cover letters amongst other things.

In conclusion, we should all take part in public engagement. Not because our funders require it, or because it looks good on a CV, but to uphold the truth and better guide the public in a media sea of information. Preparation is key, so keep your elevator pitches ready because you never know when someone might stick a microphone in your face.

Also, a special thank you to Shikta Das, Caroline Fraser and Emma Butcher for organising the talk.

[All images are from Dr Giles Yeo’s presentation at the UCL GOS Institute of Child Health on the 23rd of January 2019]