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University-made toys the envy of many

Wednesday, 17 May 2017 8:52pm

Dr Julien Gross with two of the toys made by Psychology Technicians for research into infant and children’s early learning and memory.

Toys made by technicians in Otago’s Department of Psychology are being sent around the world to support research into infant and children’s early learning and memory skills, a deal which is win-win for the University.

The novel toys were created for now Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne’s Early Learning Project (ELP) lab, so that researchers could be certain their young participants had never seen them before.

Studies throughout the world are now using the stimuli, as Professor Hayne’s former PhD students take their sets of toys with them to overseas research institutes, including to the lab of the late Carolyn Rovee-Collier (Professor Hayne’s PhD supervisor) at Rutgers in New Jersey. Other researchers those graduates have worked with have subsequently sourced their own sets from Otago.

Professor Hayne’s Lab Manager Dr Julien Gross says visiting academics are envious of the stimuli – and the skills of Psychology’s technicians in making them.

"The technicians here are incredible. You come up with any dream of any experimental stimulus you might like – and they make it a reality."

“The technicians here are incredible. You come up with any dream of any experimental stimulus you might like – and they make it a reality. For example, once we told them we wanted a magic shrinking machine, so they made us one.”

The machine was a large box with a light at one end. The researchers could turn it on, put a large ball in the top, the light would flash, and a miniature ball would come out through a hatch at the front. (Spoiler alert: the machine didn’t actually shrink the ball, an experimenter swapped the balls over behind the machine, Dr Gross explains.)

“But it was so convincing that we often had parents asking us how it worked.”

Other toys used to test children’s learning and memory skills depend on the age of the children participating, and include toys with one action for young infants, such as a cow or duck which moo or quack when a button is pushed, and toys with three actions for older children, such as a rattle cup with lid and object to go into it, and a rabbit and monkey with ears that bend, eyes to put on, and a carrot or banana to feed.

Professor Hayne’s former students are given the toys free, while other researchers purchase them.

Dr Gross says it is good for the research field to supply the toys to others, and extend their use into other labs worldwide.

“It is also good for our citations if they are used, because the researchers have to cite the previous research the toys have been used in when writing their papers,” Dr Gross says.

The technicians behind the toys say it’s rewarding to know their expertise and problem-solving skills are a valuable part of the research.

Technician Meric Hoffman says he never knows one day from the next what he’ll be doing – it can be completely out of left field.

“It makes my job exciting - I never thought when I came to work one day I’d be putting false eyelashes on a cow.”