Ohio State University: Language Pod researchers engage COSI visitors in real-life research

Throughout the year, researchers working at The Ohio State University’s Language Pod are engaging visitors to COSI in downtown Columbus in the study of how people process languages.

A partnership between Ohio State and COSI, the Language Pod (formally known as the Language Sciences Research Lab) marked its 10th anniversary with a June 2 celebration at the science museum. The COSI research pods, located on the museum’s second floor, are a part of a larger COSI exhibit on the life sciences. The pods are glass-enclosed research spaces where museum visitors can observe scientific research taking place in real time.

“We are a working research lab, so we collect data, and we have a variety of faculty members with big grants to do that,” said Laura Wagner, professor of psychology and principal investigator for the Language Pod. “We study dialect, we study sentence processing. We work with children and adults. We have one researcher currently working with children with autism. We do all kinds of different studies.”

Since opening at COSI in 2012, the Language Pod has worked with 28,000 museum visitors, Wagner said.

“Our students wear lab coats and lanyards, and they literally walk outside the pod into the area where we are, and they walk up to visitors and they say, ‘Would you like to be in a science experiment?’” she said.

The Language Pod is administered by the Buckeye Language Network, which encourages interactions among Ohio State faculty, scholars and students engaged in language-oriented research. By engaging COSI visitors in their work, Language Pod researchers encourage young people to pursue careers in science, Wagner said.

“The thing that we do that is special is that because we’re at COSI, even when you’re doing research, you can’t avoid the fact that you’re doing public engagement,” she said. “We are dealing with families who come to COSI, and they’re willing to participate because they get to be in science.”

Language Pod researchers include students from community colleges as well as public and private four-year institutions, including Ohio State’s main and regional campuses.

Angélica Avilés, a doctoral student in Ohio State’s Department of Linguistics, said her first experience as a researcher with the Language Pod was in summer 2018 when she was an undergraduate student. She said the experience provided her with invaluable experience on how to interact with research subjects and analyze data.

“I feel like it gives people the opportunity to know a bit more about linguistics, but also to have that hands-on experience of, let’s do an actual experiment,” Avilés said. “Having that opportunity to step away from academic – big talk, big words – and making it accessible to people who are not doing grad school or being a professor and making it accessible to them and seeing how they feel like, ‘Oh, this is very interesting, oh, this is something I do all the time,’ it’s that space for that.”

A’Niyah Brown, a master’s degree student in Ohio State’s Department of Speech and Hearing Science, said she gathers data that explores whether people see the connection between language and science. Like Avilés, Brown also started in the Language Pod as an undergraduate student in 2018 and has furthered her research at the graduate level.

“I run a project now where I collect data for an automatic speech recognition project for artificial intelligence with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering,” said Brown, who is continuing her work with the Language Pod this summer. “It’s really a full circle moment for me – going from undergrad to a graduate student, from being a researcher to a project coordinator.”

Brown, who is African American, noted that people of color are underrepresented in academic fields that analyze language and culture. The Language Pod is working to bridge that divide, she said.

“Laura is a super champion for just grabbing people from the global majority and putting them in positions to not only get these types of experiences, but also to put them in leadership positions,” Brown said. “That, for me, is something that I want to highlight because I feel like that’s not done enough.”

Like Brown, Rutgers University student Melany Subina is working in the Language Pod this summer to track how automatic speech recognition systems process the human voice – children’s voices, in particular.

“We’re also doing one with a robot to see if children expand their vocabulary when there’s a robot around helping them,” Subina said.

Ohio State student Jordan Kightlinger and Case Western Reserve student Amber See said their research involves monitoring how people interpret visual language designed for individuals with hearing impairments.

“We’re going to be using American Sign Language and seeing how people are able to guess (signs),” See said.

“The plan is to ask (research participants) what they think the signs mean, how confident are they, and we’re going to see if ASL really is just ‘charades,’” Kightlinger said. “Spoiler alert, it’s not!”