New ‘network of networks’ to study impact of time on learning

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A multidisciplinary exploration of the impact of time and timing on how we learn is the focus of a new National Science Foundation-funded center partially based at Vanderbilt University. The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center was created with a five-year, $15.5 million Science of Learning Center grant from NSF.

Vanderbilt associate professors of psychology Isabel Gauthier and Thomas Palmeri were part of a core team of eight scientists from Vanderbilt, the University of California, San Diego, and Rutgers University that worked together to develop the winning proposal. The center, primarily housed at UCSD, will ultimately include over 40 investigators from nearly a dozen universities in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

Many learning activities succeed or fail based on the timing of interactions within the brain, verbally, in the classroom, in social interactions and more. The center’s multidisciplinary research into the role time plays in human learning patterns—all the way from the molecular level to language and behavior—could lead to the development of more effective teaching techniques for schools and teachers, as well as new methods of scientific inquiry.

“We want to create a new, collaborative model for scientific centers of this size and scope,” Gauthier said. “The raison d’etre of a collaborative research network is to provoke important theoretical questions that are not motivated or constrained by access to techniques, while at the same time making more techniques available to study those questions.”

The new center’s collaborative structure is modeled on the Perceptual Expertise Network, or PEN, a research group founded by Gauthier in 2001. Perceptual expertise refers to the way in which the human brain recognizes and categorizes objects, such as faces.

PEN is one of four research networks the new center comprises, each focusing on a fundamental aspect of human learning. The others are the Sensory Motor Learning Network, Interacting Memory Systems Network and the Social Interaction Network.

“PEN has fostered dozens of new collaborative projects, addressing questions in a way that no single investigator would be poised to answer,” Palmeri said. “Our goal is to see that success replicated in the three new research networks created with this new center.”

For their research with the new center, Gauthier and Palmeri will focus on the timeline in which recognition and categorization abilities develop.

“Over the past few years, our group has learned a lot about what characterizes skilled object perception,” Gauthier said. “Interactions with the other networks will help us address bigger questions, such as how social interactions facilitate the acquisition of expertise.”

Vanderbilt Learning Sciences Institute Director Andrew Porter will serve as a management and evaluation consultant for the new center.

“We started thinking about submitting a proposal to the Science of Learning Center competition nearly two years ago,” Palmeri said. “At every stage of this arduous process, Andy Porter provided invaluable guidance in framing the vision for our center, organizing its management structure to be efficient and effective, and developing a coherent and comprehensive evaluation plan.”

The National Science Foundation team that reviewed the center proposal noted in their report that the “network of networks” approach has strong potential to significantly impact research in the field.

“The model of Network of Networks has potential to alter how science is conducted,” the reviewers wrote. “This concept has the potential to be paradigm shifting not only for students but also for reshaping scientific practices. If it works as planned, this concept would allow a graduate student or post-doc to be exposed to multiple approaches, methods and techniques to studying and solving issues in learning.”

Media contact: Melanie Moran, (615) 322-NEWS