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A Good ‘Word’ for Public Engagement in Science

UMD, D.C.-area College Students Conduct Interactive Studies at D.C. Language Museum

By Karen Shih ’09

A mom takes a photo of her child wearing a brain imaging cap next to a laptop showing her brain lighting up

Lisa Odom of Alexandria, Va., takes a photo of her daughter, 10-year-old Josie, as she wears a functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) cap, while UMD human development doctoral student Gavkhar Abdurokhmonova holds a laptop showing the most active parts of her brain. The project is part of the Language Science Station at Planet Word, a UMD-led series of public facing, interactive experiments conducted at the museum.

Photos by Dylan Singleton

As the summer sun beat down, the family scrambled to assemble a desert island survival kit, each calling out a suggestion: a water filter, tent, compass, hatchet, lighter.

But just as they were feeling good about their list, they hit another snag.

“Surprise! You now have to remember what your team brought,” said Mikoalis Bedrosian Kajen, a linguistics graduate student from Gallaudet University.

Their test wasn’t one of survival, but of memory, part of a research project to understand how familiarity helps with recall in conversation. They were at (the blissfully air-conditioned) Planet Word, where students and researchers from the Language Science Station were conducting four interactive experiments with visitors to the Washington, D.C., museum.

Led by University of Maryland Assistant Research Professor Charlotte Vaughn, the Language Science Station is a National Science Foundation-funded collaborative project with Gallaudet and Howard universities, in partnership with Planet Word. Since 2022, researchers have run nine studies on various aspects of spoken and written speech at the museum, engaging over 4,900 visitors and counting.

“We have planetariums and zoos and natural history museums for other disciplines, so it’s a linguist’s dream come true to have a place where language is the topic of conversation,” Vaughn said. “At Planet Word, visitors are already curious about language, so they’re primed to be sharing and interacting.”

People sit in chairs in a circle and listen to instructions with a big blue light globe behind them
The Yuen and Hankin-Wei families listen to instructions from Gallaudet linguistics graduate student Mikoalis Bedrosian Kajen as they play the "Word Island" game, part of the Language Science Station experiments.

This summer, 15 undergraduate and graduate students from UMD and three other D.C.-area colleges are taking the class “Language at the Museum.” They learn about language science and science communication, and take turns conducting experiments spanning neuroimaging, generative AI, and translation, memory and prediction throughout Planet Word.

At the “Light Up Your Language Brain” station, led by UMD human development Assistant Professor Rachel Romeo and doctoral student Gavkhar Abdurokhmonova, Alexandria, Va., resident Lisa Odom and her family had just sat down.

“Look at what your brain is doing, Josie!” Odom exclaimed to her 10-year-old as she was fitted with a functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) cap. On the computer screen, a 3D-rendering of her brain flashed patches of green and yellow and red—the latter signaling the most activated parts. Josie first listened to a story in one ear, then different stories in each ear, then a story played backward—in gibberish, essentially—to see how different parts of the brain reacted.

“I used to be a high school French teacher, so I’ve always been really interested in language,” Odom said. “Watching this is really impressive.”

[Hair, Hair for Equity in Neuroscience Research: Undergrad Expands African Americans’ Participation in Studies by Styling Hair So They Can Wear Sensor-Using Cap]

The free museum gives researchers access to a diverse pool of participants “in terms of age, language background, where people are from and lived experiences,” said Vaughn, who is also leading this year’s “Word Island” study about recalling items needed for survival.

Working with such a wide range of visitors is one of the biggest challenges for the students.

A teen wearing a yellow lei looks at a tablet while sitting in a circle with other participants
Derek Yuen tries to remember which team members suggested which survival items during the "Word Island" experiment.

“Trying to explain a complex scientific idea into a brief one-liner in layman’s terms, that’s what I’ve really enjoyed and taken away the most,” said Bedrosian Kajan, noting that participants can range from young kids to people into their 70s and 80s.

For Cristelle Torbeso ’25, a cinema and media studies and art history double major at UMD, “I’ve been outside of my comfort zone for a while now.” But since she hopes to work in museums after graduation, she “wanted to gain more experience, even if it’s challenging, to help people and engage the public in science.”

Many students who have taken the class, offered now for the third summer, have stayed on in paid research assistant positions throughout the school year, continuing the experiments at Planet Word on weekends, and moved up into mentorship roles.

Working at the museum means Vaughn and other researchers can’t use traditional methods for experiments. When researchers bring participants to the lab, where there aren’t other distractions, too often the studies can be “boring and repetitive,” she said. But at Planet Word, researchers have adapted their studies to be short, fun and engaging—10 to 15 minutes, tops.

“We’re reframing the way we do science,” Vaughn said. “We need to make changes not just based on the science but based on the participants’ experience. We want them to walk away thinking, ‘This was fun, and I learned something!’”



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