By Kim Sigouin
Dr. Kasia Muldner is an associate professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science. She focuses on student learning and creativity, particularly as they relate to technologies and the instructional process. This includes how people learn to code and program. She is fascinated by a variety of approaches to enhance student learning. Specifically, she examines educational technologies that can provide feedback and emotional encouragement to students.
Mulder reveals how programming challenges students while inspiring them to indulge in creative ways to overcome these challenges. Programming nurtures creativity as it encourages students to take risks and to facilitate the exploration of complex problems. In programming, students encounter difficult problems that might seem daunting at first. Through computational thinking, students learn to conquer the larger problem by first dividing it into smaller steps. Their aim is to put all of the pieces together like a puzzle. This method commands them to become creative problem-solvers as they practise division, abstraction, and pattern recognition.
However, some students might feel compelled to overlook a programming class if they do not feel that they have a strong skill set with computers. Dr. Muldner reflects on her experience as a first-year undergraduate student. Initially, she studied English and psychology. It was her father, a computer science professor at Acadia University, who had recommended that she take a programming class. She is grateful to have had this support since it inspired her love for programming. Institutions should strive to promote programming to innovative problem-solvers who are driven by curiosity and an avid desire to learn.
An Interdisciplinary Approach
The welcoming environment at Carleton and the department’s keen interest to foster support for student learning makes programming more accessible and addresses gender inequality in the classroom. Specifically, the Institute of Cognitive Science is superb in its interdisciplinary approach to learning. It offers a variety of areas of study that range from, but are not limited to, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and programming. Students must enroll in a mandatory programming class. Dr. Muldner is thrilled to teach this course since she witnesses firsthand the students’ enthusiasm for the subject matter.
There is also a lab component, which is essential to the learning process since it provides the students with an opportunity to engage in hands-on-activities. They are not simply listening to a professor lecture about a specific topic, but they have the opportunity to make abstract ideas more concrete. Moreover, they have the imaginative freedom to investigate complex problems. That is, they are not simply guided through each step of a difficult task by the professor, but engage in their own inventive and original inquiries that uniquely guide them to new solutions.
The lab component encourages students to actively participate in the class. This hands-on approach helps students to increase their confidence and encourages them to share new ideas. Dr. Muldner states how her research on student learning inspires new teaching strategies, which inevitably inspires her research. Driven by her own curiosity to enrich an understanding of student learning, she states that learning should be fun and she happily incorporates a sense of humour into the classroom. She also notes how the students at Carleton are “amazing”: “they are curious and they genuinely want to know more.”
Dr. Muldner is working on a number of projects aimed at supporting student learning of STEM domains, including the design and evaluation of tutoring systems to foster program comprehension, algebra learning, as well as studies to understand how affective states like frustration impact learning outcomes from challenging instructional activities. She is excited to work on these projects within the Institute of Cognitive Science wherein she has the opportunity to engage with and collaborate with colleagues and their diverse expertise.
Language and Social Cognition Lab
One of these esteemed colleagues is Dr. Olessia Jouravlev, an assistant professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science. Her research explores the relationship between language acquisition and use, social behaviour, and brain responses. This focus extends to how some people have difficulty communicating complex ideas or learning languages other than their mother tongue while others learn new languages much more easily:
“Language is a powerful tool that allows us to express our thoughts and ideas and communicate with others. In multilingual and multicultural countries like Canada, speaking several languages often becomes a requirement for achieving success in personal and professional life.”
As the principal investigator of the Language and Social Cognition Lab, Dr. Jouravlev leads the Language and Social Cognition group in the investigation of underlining neurological mechanisms that may affect the efficiency of a native or non-native language. Her research is motivated by questions relating to how individuals showcase different linguistic abilities: “Why do some individuals eloquently express complex ideas, while others struggle to utter even a simple grammatical sentence? What allows polyglots to master dozens of languages, while many others fail to learn even a single non-native language despite years of extensive foreign training?” These research questions can expand our understanding of linguistic and communicative impairments in developmental disorders such as autism, cerebral palsy, and psychotic disorders.
Dr. Jouravlev’s research focus motivates her teaching. Her focus on individual differences inspires her appreciation for and need to develop support for individual learning needs. Dr. Jouravlev states: “I teach students who differ in ages, native languages, cultural backgrounds, and in educational experiences. I feel that these individual differences enrich the classroom environment. My goal as an educator is to use pedagogical approaches that meet the needs and goals of an individual student.”
Together, Dr. Jouravlev and Dr. Muldner have combined their expertise. Their multidisciplinary project Programming and Language: What is the Connection? explores the similarities and differences in the brain between language and computer programming. Their aim is to understand the neurocognitive mechanisms related to the relationship between programming languages and natural languages.
Dr. Jouravlev expands on this: “Nobody would ever confuse a line of source code with a line from Hamlet. Although programming and language are very distinct on the surface, there are similarities between these domains (Portnoff, 2018). Both programming and natural languages are used to communicate information. Both are combinatorial systems of symbols in which larger structures are generated from a set of smaller units (words or variables). Further, programming and language share some parallels with respect to grammar (or syntax) and meaning (or semantics). The presence of these similarities raises a question of possible links between programming and language and their instantiation in the brain.”
This unique project establishes a conversation between different methods and theories across several disciplines, including cognitive neuroscience, computer science, cognitive psychology, and educational psychology. This project is perfectly suited for the interdisciplinary approach of the Institute of Cognitive Science.
The Research in Language and Social Cognition lab has been generously supported by an NSERC Discovery Grant and by funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. Dr. Muldner’s and Dr. Jouravlev’s project has been supported by the federal government’s New Frontiers in Research Fund.
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