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Assistant Professor Dr. Emily Grossnickle Peterson Awarded Prestigious $1.3M Grant

The study of how curiosity affects learning may benefit teaching.

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Assistant Professor Dr. Emily Grossnickle Peterson demonstrates an eye tracking machine.

Assistant Professor Dr. Emily Grossnickle Peterson received one of the most prestigious awards from the National Science Foundation, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, with a grant for more than $1M to investigate the role that curiosity plays in students’ learning about scientific phenomena. The grant is meant to uplift early-career faculty members who demonstrate the potential to serve as academic role models in education and research that lead advances in their department. The five-year award totaling up to $1,387,686 will support research around student curiosity and learning across STEM fields. “Curiosity is a hallmark of scientific discovery and can propel students to ask questions, explore scientific ideas, enhance memory, and boost persistence during learning,” said Peterson. Studies have tested whether curiosity increases learning, but she hopes her research takes the next step to explore how it increases learning.
“The CAREER grant is a comprehensive grant, and it’s meant to test big ideas,” Peterson said. They are used to push the boundaries more than other grants where the outcomes might be more predictable, and lean toward funding research that is more novel. “It’s also meant to combine research and teaching initiatives to help develop scholar teachers. I was really interested in building up my research program and integrating it with teaching initiatives. [The grants] are known for helping to set you up for a really exciting future career in research.”

Peterson said this will be the first research examining the relationship between curiosity and visual processing during learning about science. Peterson will spend the next five years on research studies taking place in classrooms and online answering the question, “Why do students learn more when they feel curious?” With the hypothesis that curiosity better engages the mind with visual searching and builds stronger mental visual representations of information, her work will focus on visuals and science learning. Her work includes three studies with high-school and undergraduate students which will test if sparking curiosity around scientific phenomena changes students’ visual processing. “These experiments will test whether feeling curious changes visual processing in ways that support student learning about science,” Peterson said.

Dr. Emily PetersonHer research idea came from a question that has nagged her since she was in graduate school. A class on motivation made her wonder, “Why do we learn better when we feel intrinsically motivated?” Much of her work today is still answering the question. “We want our students to be curious, and we have this wealth of research suggesting curiosity is effective for learning, but I’m trying to get at a deeper question: ‘What is changing about how we’re thinking about information that would result in curiosity supporting learning?’ said Peterson. “When we feel interested or when we feel curious, why does learning feel like it takes so much less effort? [Learning while curious] seems like the best of all worlds – this sort of learning feels more enjoyable. But why? I’ve been pondering this for the past decade or so.” 

She had to invent a methodology to try to answer this question, as it’s difficult to design interventions to support curiosity. There isn’t an understanding of why and when curiosity is most effective for learning, and if it can be proven, it could lead to better teaching methods. “We’ll have to wait to see what the results are, but the hope is to provide information about what curiosity is foundationally,” said Peterson. “What does it look like when students are curious when they’re learning? How is that changing mental processing? And can we use some of that information to have interventions supporting curiosity in classrooms? That would be an amazing impact down the line.”

On top of her research, the CAREER Award funds public education, which Peterson will implement by using science projects to engage K-12 students in cognitive science research about curiosity and visual processing. She will build a website to post science research projects to encourage students – particularly middle and high-school students and their teachers – to engage in activities around curiosity and visual processing. Each year, Peterson and her research team will mentor high school students who are part of a student advisory board to collect feedback on the research and help the students complete the projects.

“When students are learning using visuals in science, they might use diagrams, maps, graphs, all sorts of things,” said Peterson. “If you feel more curious while you’re learning from that visual, does that change how you’re mentally representing the information? It’s a combination of different experimental designs – I have curiosity interventions to try to manipulate curiosity and see how that impacts students visual processing. In other cases, it’s giving a comparison between students like, ‘Are students who are more curious than others doing something differently when they process information?’”

Perhaps years from now, maybe even decades, Peterson hopes some of new methodical techniques will be used in the field. Peterson said, “I’m really interested in research getting at some of the more foundational cognitive and motivational processes so that we’re laying the groundwork for future research that may be able to make some applications in the classroom.” With her classroom research, she hopes to get an understanding of some of the foundational processes like: ‘How does curiosity work?’; ‘What is going on in the mind when you feel curious?’; and ‘How is that supporting learning?’ She hopes her research on curiosity can be applied to more general learning, also. 

Peterson joined SOE’s faculty in 2017 after receiving her doctorate in human development and quantitative methodology with a specialization in educational psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park. Peterson wants to specifically thank her husband who was instrumental in giving her the time and space to compile this work and write a five-year academic plan. She also credits the SOE weekly writing group and colleagues from different institutions who shared their knowledge. She thanks Dean Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, Associate Dean Corbin Campbell, and Director of Undergraduate Programs and Teacher Education Ocheze Joseph for their support of her work and the time they allowed her to take outside of teaching. Peterson said that she has an additional thousand people to thank for helping her achieve what she has done.

View her abstract here.

Learn more about the NSF CAREER Award here.