Uttal Wins Funding for Touchscreen Research

Uttal Wins Funding for Touchscreen Research

TouchscreenDavid Uttal’s research examining whether children can learn from touchscreen apps on tablets and smartphones has received initial funding from Northwestern University’s Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci).

Uttal, a professor of education and social policy and professor of psychology, also was named a Dan Linzer Fellow for his long history of collaborating with researchers both within Northwestern and with other institutions, including Loyola University and James Madison University in Virginia.

“Children grow up in a media-infused world,” Uttal said. “The wide availability of touchscreen devices gives us exciting new chances to help children learn through playful games that facilitate thinking and development.”

The project, which utilizes eye-tracking methods, will test how playing spatially-rich games on screens can influence a child’s ability to understand the physical relationship between objects, and whether those games can improve early math performance.

Spatial skills are a critical part of everyday life and used in everything from reading a map and merging into traffic to packing a suitcase or using a mirror. A wide variety of fields rely on spatial skills – which are distinct from verbal and reasoning ability and memory skills -- including mathematics, medicine, engineering, architecture, and others.

Uttal hopes his research will help scientists develop new evidence-based applications to support children’s learning. “There is tremendous interest in apps to support learning, but too few of the developments have relied on rigorous research,” he said. “We need research on how young children learn from touchscreen technologies so that educators, pediatricians, and other experts can provide recommendations to families.”

During the pilot study, children will play a series of games that require a variety of spatial skills. Children’s movements are recorded both by the games themselves and video cameras. Eye tracking glasses, paired with the recorded movements, give a more precise understanding of children’s cognitive processes while playing, Uttal said.

Uttal, director of the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center at Northwestern, will be collaborating with Ellen Wartella, a leading scholar in the role of media in children’s development in the School of Communication; and Rachel Flynn, research assistant professor in medical social sciences at Feinberg School of Medicine, whose research focuses on the effects of media on cognitive development. 

“Touchscreen Technology’s Impact on Young Children’s Spatial Skills” was one of three transdisciplinary projects to receive inaugural seed funding from DevSci, which awarded nearly $60,000 overall. Throughout the year, the awardees will receive support on extramural grant submissions from the Center for Research Incubation. In addition, DevSci will host symposiums for the awardees to present their research. The next seed fund competition will be held in the fall of 2018.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 4/18/18