When you learn new facts, interact with colleagues and teachers, experiment with new gadgets, or engage in countless other learning activities, timing plays a role in the functioning of your neurons, in the communication between and within sensory systems, and in the interactions between different regions of your brain. The success or failure of attempts to communicate using gestures, expressions and verbal language also depends on timing.
Gary Cottrell, a Computer Science and Engineering professor from UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering, is the driving force behind the founding of the centre as well as a participating researcher. Gary Cottrell recruited over forty researchers from across the United States, Canada, and Australia to participate in the effort.
The NSF's Science of Learning Centers programme offers awards for large-scale, long-term centres that will extend the frontiers of knowledge on learning of all types and create the intellectual, organisational, and physical infrastructure needed for the long-term advancement of learning research.
"It was a monumental task putting this together", Gary Cottrell stated, "but when we started talking about our plans, people just came out of the woodwork to join in. It was a group effort." Gary Cottrell will direct The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center in concert with Andrea Chiba, a professor at the Cognitive Science department and an affiliate of the Graduate Programme in Neurosciences at UCSD and with Terry Sejnowski, who is the head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and a professor of Biology at UCSD.
"Our approach to organizing research at the centre is unique. We have created four research networks, made up of interdisciplinary teams to study the same questions using differing methods, skills, and expertise. We have explicitly not created groups that will just meet and tell each other about their research", explained Gary Cottrell. "Rather, we will work across disciplines to synchronize our research on various aspects of time and timing in learning to develop a more comprehensive, multi-disciplinary science focused on the temporal dynamics of learning, from the laboratory to the classroom."
The award is for $3,5 million for the first two years. The NSF, with input from peer reviewers, will then decide whether to fund an additional $12 million over the next three years. The grant could then be renewed for another $20 million over the following five years. Only four other Science of Learning Centers have been funded in recent years. The NSF is, however, in the process of funding two new centres: one will be dedicated to understanding spatial aspects of learning and the other will focus on vision and learning.
At UCSD and the relevant partner institutions, the four networks of The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center will collaborate to form a "network of networks" structure that could revolutionize the way in which collaborative scientific research is performed.
The researchers are asking questions that cross the boundaries of traditional fields of learning research. In an attempt to achieve results that will extend beyond academia, questions are being developed through ongoing dialogue with educators. The researchers hope to improve teacher understanding of the scientific research pertaining to the dynamics of learning. In addition, the researchers aim to collaborate with teachers to understand the dynamics of how students are taught in the classroom. Through this process of outreach and "inreach" - bringing teachers into the laboratory - the centre's researchers hope to ensure that their work will be relevant to the real world of the classroom.
The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center will integrate its research and educational mission through the Education Outreach Center that will be co-directed by Paula Tallal from Rutgers University at Newark and Terry Sejnowski from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The name of the centre, when combined with its official slogan, highlights the dual research and education missions: The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center: Better Learning through the Advancement of the Science of Time (TLC: BLAST).
The Preuss School - a middle school and high school on the UCSD campus that provides intensive college prep education for motivated low-income students with Dr. Doris Alvarez as its principal - will serve as a "living lab" for appropriate research projects, such as testing new ideas concerning how and when new material should be presented to students. UCSD's Student Educational Advancement office, whose primary mission is to motivate and prepare educationally disadvantaged and first-generation college students for college success and graduate school, is another outreach partner.
"Timing is everything. It's been a neglected area that we think can really be exploited to help us understand some of the basic ways in which information is integrated in our brains across a variety of timescales. I think we could transform the way that research is actually done by understanding in a real classroom setting how children interact with teachers and use that to help inform our science", stated Terry Sejnowski.
"Attempting to understand the temporal dynamics underlying effective learning and memory is an enormous undertaking that will require synchronization of research across multiple disciplines and research models", stated Andrea Chiba. "For example, the structure of our centre will allow us to carry out similar experiments, simultaneously, in humans, animal models, and computational models. The San Diego Supercomputer Center will provide us with the cyberinfrastucture necessary to embark on such a large scale collaborative endeavour."
The scientists who are part of this new multi-disciplinary centre hail from a variety of fields, including machine learning, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, molecular genetics, biophysics, mathematics, and education.
"Creating a Science of Learning Center with our colleagues from Rutgers and from Vanderbilt is really an exciting development that is consistent with the mission and vision for this campus. We have the number one neuroscience programme in the country. We have the San Diego Supercomputer Center which is unique in being able to handle the large data sets that will be generated by basic research. It will be a wonderful multi-disciplinary centre", stated UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox.
The four networks that will make up The Temporal Dynamics Learning Center are the:
- Sensory Motor Learning Network: Researchers will study the fine temporal dynamics of synaptic learning and motor learning. The network leader is Dan Feldman, professor of Biology and Neuroscience at UCSD.
- Interacting Memory Systems Network: Scientists will focus on the timing of interactions among memory systems. The network leader is Andrea Chiba, professor of Cognitive Science and Neuroscience at UCSD.
- Perceptual Expertise Network: Investigators will study the time course of how representations come on-line in perceptual expertise, such as face processing. The network leaders are Isabel Gauthier and Tom Palmeri from the Psychology Department at Vanderbilt University.
- Social Interaction Network: Researchers will study how time affects interactions between children and adults in educational settings. Insights on learning may be passed on to RUBI, a social robot that currently teaches numbers, colours and other basic concepts to kids at the UCSD Early Childhood Education Center. The network leader is Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Lab at UCSD's Institute for Neural Computation, located in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) on the La Jolla campus.