Editors’s Note: The following piece was originally published by UConn Today. Devin Kearns is an associate professor in the Neag School of Education. Additional insights from Kearns have been incorporated into this version of the piece.
Fun activities, new friends, and EEG scans are all part of helping kids overcome learning difficulties at B.R.A.I.N. Camp.
On a recent cloudy day at Storrs, shouts of joy, confusion, and laughter could be heard in the Henry Ruthven Monteith building by Mirror Lake as a group of children tried to mix cornstarch and water to the perfect ratio. The goal was to make oobleck, a pressure-dependent substance that changes from liquid to solid at the touch.
Meanwhile, behind the neighboring Jaime Homero Arjona building, another group of children added vinegar to dish soap in a plastic cup and, delighted, shrieked as it erupted like a volcano.
“I like it – we always get to play and learn new things and make friends,” says Logan, a B.R.A.I.N. camp participant from Coventry.
Logan and his friends are participating in UConn’s B.R.A.I.N. Camp, also called Bridging Reading AndIntervention with Neuroscience Camp, where experiments like these join with daily reading and math exercises and weekly electroencephalography (EEG) scans.
This summer, UConn neuroscientist Fumiko Hoeft, Neag School Associate Professor of Educational Psychology Devin Kearns, and collaborators from psychological sciences, education, mathematics, the Brain Imaging Research Center (BIRC), and others launched the five-week, all-expenses-included summer camp at Storrs for third- and fourth-grade children who are struggling to read.
“When it comes to teaching children with learning disabilities, early intervention is key to academic outcome, self-esteem, and life success,” says Hoeft, professor of psychological sciences and director of BIRC.
“There is great evidence that certain reading interventions work, but they do not work for everyone,” Hoeft says. Up to 30% of children who struggle to read (often known as children with dyslexia) might continue tostruggle to read as they get older, she says.
“This is why we want to provide early intervention and add new pieces to these interventions that we think will work based on science, and on the child’s learning profile. If we can make this work, it is a great step toward personalized learning,” says Hoeft.
“The project was unique in that it allowed us to compare the effects of each of them separately with the hopes of improving reading instruction.”
— Elizabeth Zagata, doctoral student
Second-year doctoral student in educational psychology Elizabeth Zagata helped broadly conceptualize the project, along with planning and writing the intervention program. She was profoundly interested in comparing phonics and morphology.
“The project was unique in that it allowed us to compare the effects of each of them separately with the hopes of improving reading instruction,” says Zagata.
As a neuroscientist whose research explores biomarkers of learning disabilities such as dyslexia — patterns of brain structure and function or chemistry that would predict who responds to what kind of interventions — Hoeft is familiar with early signs of reading difficulties in children.
For instance, if a child does not know letters or letter sounds, those are risk factors in becoming dyslexic.But typically, dyslexia cannot be diagnosed until a child is a couple of years behind in reading.
“For each year we delay providing evidence-based interventions, say from pre-K to kindergarten,kindergarten to first grade and so on, the effectiveness goes down by 25% to 50% each year,” says Hoeft.
With funding from the Oak Foundation, along with help from the Neag School and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), project PI Hoeft, co-PI Devin Kearns, and postdoctoral researchers Silvia Clement-Lam and Airey Lau set up three research-based reading interventions and one research-based math intervention that were taught by experienced instructors during academic blocks at the camp.
The interventions track the students’ improvement by assessing behavior and cognition and with brain imaging techniques, functional MRI, and weekly EEGs. This way, the researchers can find a complex set of markers that predict intervention response, and sensitively track how they change in terms of brain and behavior.
“We are doing this by using neuroimaging techniques because we believe that this approach might show us how the brain changes as students learn new reading skills.”
— Devin Kearns, Associate Professor
“With the EEG cap on their head, we do a couple of tasks,” says Ashley Parker, a doctoral student in speech, language and hearing sciences who is the EEG specialist at B.R.A.I.N. Camp, working under Clement-Lam, the lead EEG researcher.
One task asks the students to read many words that flash on a computer screen, and have them press abutton when they see the same word twice. Another task has them read nonsensical sentences, such as “It is snowing, so let’s go outside and build Grandpa.”
Researchers are not only learning what type of interventions may be effective, but also how interventions can shape and change student performance over a period of time.
“We are doing this by using neuroimaging techniques because we believe that this approach might show us how the brain changes as students learn new reading skills,” says Kearns.
In addition to three types of reading interventions, a math intervention acts as the control intervention.
“Math is also intricately related to reading, and there are theories that suggest that some types of math activities may even help those with reading problems,” says Hoeft.
Parker, together with other graduate students, undergraduate students, and even high school interns, will analyze the campers’ brain waves as they read, and collect data over the five weeks of camp to track their progress.
“I’ve noticed them just start laughing as they read these sentences,” Parker says. “Even in just a week they’ve come such a long way on their reading progress.”
In fact, early reports showcased that students had made significant progress in their reading capabilities.
“One student did not qualify for a fall reading support project, potentially because of instruction this summer,” says Kearns.
A recent grant from CLAS to multidisciplinary collaborators (including Hoeft, mathematics professor Fabiana Cardetti, and Clement Lam and Lau) enabled Hoeft and her team to recruit students from diverse backgrounds and provide lunch, snacks, and a school bus to shuttle students from Hartford to Storrs.
“Thanks to CLAS, the diversity of students is quite remarkable, and unique for this type of intense neuroscience research,” Hoeft says. “Typically, these neuroimaging projects skew toward mid- and higher-income families, so we get a skewed sample, but we wanted to get a more representative population. Hardly anyone has studied diverse students with reading disabilities.”
The project also includes a socio-emotional focus, exploring how learning disabilities affect lifelong mental health.
Research shows that rates of anxiety and depression are two to five times more prevalent in children with learning disabilities, says Hoeft, in addition to a higher rate of ADHD, suicide, and incarceration rates in adults.
“The hope is that by providing early interventions, the kids will never have to feel low self-esteem,” Hoeftsays. “We hope that by giving them early, intense, and theoretically motivated interventions at camp, they won’t have to struggle for years and become more socially-emotionally challenged.”
For Melissa Stalega, a second-year doctoral student in the Neag School’s special education program, this self-image transformation is one of the aspects she found most inspiring about the program.
“It was nice to see students feel empowered,” says Stalega. “A couple of my students came into the camp with poor self-concept, and seeing them gain some confidence as the reading program progressed was really encouraging.”
B.R.A.I.N. Camp is a collaborative effort that has been in the works for over two years. In addition to Co-Directors Fumiko Hoeft and Devin Kearns, the team includes research assistants Nina Bayer and Sumita Saluja from the Neag School; postdoctoral researchers Silvia Clement-Lam and Airey Lau from psychological sciences; mathematics professor Fabiana Cardetti and psychological sciences professor Jim Magnuson; andgraduate students Yi Wei, Ashley Parker, and Michael Urbanski.