How and Why Do Children Learn?

Lori Harwood
May 2, 2003

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant to a psychologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson to study the early learning abilities of infants. Rebecca Gomez, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, will use the five-year, $405,165 Early Career Development Award for her project, "The Trajectory of Early Learning and its Roots in Early Social Interactions."

Gomez is the director of the Child Cognition Lab, called the "Tigger Lab," at the UA. She is investigating how learning develops between the ages of 4 and 18 months, especially how they acquire the remarkable language and learning abilities they show by one or two years of age.

One way to discover this is by exposing infants to miniature artificial languages, which Gomez uses instead of natural language. That's because infants have already learned much about their native language by the time she sees them in her lab.

Gomez also wants to see the link between infants' early learning to their social interactions with caregivers, and whether there is a link between infants' responsiveness in social situations and their learning abilities. The goal is to obtain a detailed description of early learning and its relationship to early social experiences. This research will have merit for both parents and scholars, especially given the growing recognition of the importance of the first three years of life to later development.

"In addition to the research, there is an important training component to the grant," Gomez said. "Over the course of the five years of funding, I will be mentoring seven students from underrepresented groups. The idea is to recruit students early in their undergraduate careers and to provide them with extensive research training that will make them lucrative candidates for careers in research and teaching. Increasing diversity among teachers and scholars in our universities is important for serving the needs of our changing population."

Al Kaszniak, head of the psychology department, said "This is a very important grant award, both for Dr. Gomez and for the psychology department. Dr. Gomez' research is on the cutting edge of work that will help us unravel the interactions between early language learning and social interaction. Her Child Cognition Laboratory is a terrific resource, both as the setting in which Dr. Gomez conducts her studies, and also as an outstanding research training facility for both graduate and advanced undergraduate students who are interested in early childhood learning. The psychology department is very fortunate to have Dr. Gomez as a member of our faculty."

Gomez has a doctorate from New Mexico State University and joined the UA faculty in 2001.