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Bringing cognitive science in action to young minds

By: Erica Moser Date: Apr 10, 2024
A dog being trained at Working Dog Center
Penn Upward Bound high school students observed Whelan, a 1-year-old working dog in training at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, barking to communicate the presence of a person in the box: an intern helping with the training exercise. Whelan, whose fur had been shaved to allow surface measurements of muscle activity during exercise, couldn't see where the hider went and used her nose.

Eleven high school students stood around the 20-by-8-by-8-foot enclosure at the Penn Smart Aviary at Pennovation Works, focused on the dozen or so brown-headed cowbirds flitting from perch to perch and emitting high-pitched songs.

Biology professor Marc Schmidt and doctoral student Natalia Aponte Borges instructed the students—half of a group visiting that day from Penn Upward Bound—to tally the number of times they observed different behaviors: singing with spread wings, singing with wings down, preening, flying. The second task was to pick a single bird, identifiable by the pair of colored bands on the bird’s legs and follow the bird’s behaviors for three minutes.

“I have become really interested in understanding how the brain works in a naturalistic context,” Schmidt told the group. He is interested in learning how a male cowbird decides to be with a certain female and not another, and this spring day was just before the beginning of courtship season. Aponte Borges explained that, to understand courtship behavior across the mating season, they separate males and females before starting recordings. The students observed behaviors between males, which she said are important for establishing hierarchy in the flock.

MindCORE, Penn’s hub for the integrative study of the mind, organized a visit to Pennovation for 19 students from Upward Bound, including three from the STEM-focused Upward Bound Math and Science program, during their spring break. Students learned about cognitive science and saw research in action through talks and demonstrations at the Penn Smart Aviary, Penn Vet Working Dog Center, and GRASP Laboratory (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception).

Read more on Penn Today!