St. Olaf College | News

Student joins Johns Hopkins research team examining how infants use math

Joy Smith ’17 is working alongside researchers in the Laboratory for Child Development at Johns Hopkins University this summer.

This summer, St. Olaf College student Joy Smith ’17 is working alongside researchers at Johns Hopkins University to answer an intriguing question: Can infants increase their working memory capacity through counting?

Early results indicate that the surprising answer is yes.

Smith — one of five research assistants in the Laboratory for Child Development in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore— says previous research has shown that infants ages 17-19 months can remember and keep track of up to three objects at a time, but fail with four or more objects.

Her research team has found, however, that infants can overcome this failure in working memory and keep track of four objects if they are counted out beforehand.

“Infants at this age have not yet learned to count, do not understand counting words, and do not have a lot of exposure to counting,” Smith says. “Yet it is remarkable that this research reveals that counting can still enhance their working memory capacity for objects.”

Smith, a psychology major at St. Olaf with a concentration in family studies, received internship funding from the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career to support her time at Johns Hopkins this summer.

In the past year, 107 St. Olaf students have received Piper Center funding for unpaid or underpaid internships. Another 107 students have received internship funding through college programs such as the Rockswold Health Scholars Program, the Svoboda Legal Scholars Program, and the Johnson Family Opportunity Fund — all part of the college’s commitment to supporting students as they navigate potential career paths.

Last summer Smith studied emotion expression in preschool-aged children alongside Associate Professor of Psychology Grace Cho as part of the St. Olaf Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. That experience prompted Smith to pursue additional research experience, which led her to apply for the internship at Johns Hopkins.

She says her work this summer — which has included running studies with participants, making calls to families, coding videos, and analyzing data — has provided her with a better understanding of not only child development, but cognition in general. It also confirmed her plans to pursue a graduate degree in psychology and child development.

“It’s exciting to uncover new information about the way the human mind functions, and the extraordinary things it can do, even as an infant,” she says. “I have learned that child development research is vital to our understanding of the mind, and that it is the foundation for the best approaches to education. The more informed we are about child development, the better we can help children grow to their full potential.”