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Learning in Informal and Formal Environments Center

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The LIFE Center: Learning in Informal and Formal Environments  (University of Washington)

Research Focus

The Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center is devoted to uncovering how humans learn in and out of school, from birth to adulthood, with an emphasis on the social foundations of learning. Its findings inform learning theories, influence educational practices and support development of technologies designed to enhance learning.

The LIFE Center is a collaborative effort among the University of Washington in Seattle, Stanford University and SRI International, Inc., both in the San Francisco area. Other institutions across the country also participate. LIFE Center researchers represent a broad range of fields, including neurobiology, psychology, education, speech and hearing sciences, anthropology and sociology. Many of the issues LIFE investigates arise from the researchers’ interactions.

Research Outcomes

The LIFE Center's research objective is to identify and investigate the underlying principles of how people learn socially, by strategically sampling learning across settings, domains and ages, and by using multiple methodologies (neurobiological, cognitive, developmental and socio-cultural) to advance the science of learning and guide the design of learning technologies and environments.

One study partially funded by the Center showed that a metallic robot's ability to interact with babies is more important than its appearance. The study indicated that, more than appear a certain way, robots must possess sophisticated cognitive abilities such as being able to understand speech and imitate human actions in order to pass the test of human social acceptance. So-called "companion robots" have a number of potential applications, ranging from helping and caring for the elderly and disabled to doing household chores and acting as playmates or personalized tutors for children. But robotics researchers have long wondered how human-like in appearance they need to be for adults to accept them.

Another study, published in Developmental Psychology, found that heavy digital multitasking and more time spent in front of screens correlated with poor emotional and social health--including low social confidence, not feeling normal, having more friends whom parents perceive as poor influences and even sleeping less.

The Stanford University Calming Technology Lab is another Center outcome, directed by a LIFE Center graduate. Its graduate course "d.compress: Designing Calm" is part of a growing field that seeks to alleviate the stresses of our technologically driven lives.

Education & Outreach

Faculty, researchers, students and postdocs with the LIFE Center are dispersed across multiple institutions, primarily at the University of Washington, Stanford University and SRI International. LIFE Center graduates have gone on to university tenure-track faculty positions, postdoctoral fellowships and research positions in non-profits and corporations.

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