The central goal of this project is to determine how the spatial structure of the environment impacts learning, and how this process interacts with the developmental state of the learner, as well as the nature of the incoming information. The broader long-term objective is to outline the maximally-beneficial spatial structure of everyday learning situations, for age groups that vary with respect to cognitive ability and level of education and enculturation. The project explores areas of continuity or discontinuity in the development of processing mathematical and non-mathematical information, in a spatially structured or unstructured manner. Thus, these studies contribute to the NIH mission to pursue knowledge about the behavior of living systems, as well as the NICHD Mathematics and Science Cognition Learning program mission to encourage basic research on the normal development of cognition and learning, especially in a mathematical or spatial context. The proposed participation of undergraduate research assistants in every aspect of this project aims to encourage early interest in basic research, and to foster mentoring in a wide array of advanced developmental psychology methods despite the college's status as a non-graduate degree granting institution. As such, this set of discrete research projects is suitable for the AREA program, which is geared towards institutions which provide undergraduate degrees for a significant number of future scientists, but have not been significantly supported by NIH. Three main sets of studies are proposed. One set of studies looks at dyadic interactions between caregivers and children, documenting the nature and extent of spatial structuring by the caregiver, and the impact of this structuring on the child's subsequent memory for the task materials. A second set of studies explicitly manipulates the spatial structure of incoming information, and the effect of this structure on learning, using game-like paradigms adapted for infants, preschoolers, and adults. Each group will see spatial locations labeled in either a structured or unstructured fashion, with the goal of learning these label-space mappings to infer the location of a hidden toy (for infants and children), or recalling this information after a dela (adults). A third and final set of studies utilizes a unique interactive touch-screen game, designed to test how the structure of spatial information - and the type of information presented - influences both the efficiency of initial learning and participants'subsequent memory for this information. For all studies, we aim to differentiate the relative contributions of mathematical, ordinal, and non-ordinal information to this process of spatially structuring input.
The research proposed here is relevant to public health in two main ways. First, mapping the development of this burgeoning link between spatial structure, math, and learning can readily lead to straightforward and low-cost educational enhancements to children's learning. Second, research on non-symbolic mathematical processing provides an invaluable baseline from which one can detect and begin intervention on abnormal mathematical and spatial development, and mathematical disabilities such as dyscalculia.