SciTech Now Episode 246

Part two of Science Friday’s Imaginary Companions series links imagination to creative problem solving; can learning about scientists’ struggles increase student interest in science?; using simple and innovative technologies, disabled scientists work to improve the wheelchair; physicist Robert Davies and the Fry Street Quartet use a multi-sensory approach to educating people about climate change.


Coming up, finding success in scientific failures.

If we help kids understand how the great people became great through failures, that would actually engage them more in their science classes.

Transformative wheelchair technology.

It's people with disabilities saying, 'You know what?

We're smart.

We know how to do things.

We can come up with some of our own ideas.'

And finally, using music to explain climate change.

The performance is really designed for people who already understand we have these problems but maybe just aren't behaving like it.

And so it's to take them to a place that motivates them, largely on an ethical basis.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

For children, the line between reality and fantasy can sometimes become blurred, especially when it comes to imaginary friends.

In this second episode of the Science Friday series, 'The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions,' developmental psychologist Jacqueline Woolley takes us into the lab to investigate whether a child's orientation toward fantasy play is tied to real-world creativity.

They come in all shapes, sizes...


He's big?

He's this big.

Children surprise us all the time with what they come up with.

[ Munching loudly ]

A shark?

This idea that something can be real and fantasy all at the same time, that's an amazing capacity.

The children that create imaginary companions are not typically quiet loners.

Yah! [ Laughs ]

They are less shy, so it's exactly the opposite of the stereotype.


And they also are very sociable.

They like people.

Plunk them down in a lab, and you'll find yourself captivated.



Does he like that?


That's his favorite thing to do.

Talking to a child about an imaginary companion, you have no idea what's gonna come out.


They can vary from being a giant penguin to a little speck of a little -- a fly on your shoulder.

And many are deeply bonded to their imaginary companions.

I was wondering about your fairy godmother.

What's that?

She's camouflaged in your dress?

What does your fairy godmother like to do?

She likes to play with you.

What does she like to play?

She does.

Bears? [ Laughs ]

[ Growling quietly ]



They love them.

I mean, that love is real.

It can be tricky to tell what kids think is real and what's pretend.

There's a lot for children to sort out, because we're constantly surrounding them with fantasy content.

We're telling them about fairies and elves, and sometimes we make a concerted effort to confuse children, like the Tooth Fairy.

And they have to learn about things from the past, like dinosaurs.

They have to figure out what used to be real but is no more, what's never been real.

From starships to Santa, you'd think kids might get lost in it all.

Yet the research of developmental psychologist Dr. Jacqueline Woolley suggests otherwise.

The traditional picture of kids is that they're confused about fantasy and reality.

What most people see is kids believing in Santa Claus and other fantasy figures, and so they kind of generalize from that and assume that children are confused about every aspect of fantasy and reality, and they're really not.

The vast majority of children tell us, 'This is pretend.'

'Yes, I love her, yes, she's wonderful.

She's pretend.'

They use a lot of the same cues that adults do to differentiate fantasy from reality from a pretty young age.

They distinguish reality from dreams.

They know the difference between imagining something and thinking it, for example, which is pretty sophisticated.

This is the age at which many children create imaginary companions, and even by 3 or 4, they know from the start that those beings aren't real.

But that doesn't mean that they're any less vulnerable to the emotional impact of fantasy, especially with their pretend companions.

One of the reasons that children sometimes create imaginary companions is to deal with an emotional issue that they're wrestling with at that point in time.

What do you like about your fairy godmother?

I can understand that.


And sometimes children get so wrapped up in their fantasies that they do sort of seem to lose track of what's real and what's not real.

The way that I think about it is, there's this kind of magical bubble in which the children and their imaginary companions live, and they know that the bubble exists, and they choose not to pop it.

Often, they even pull us into that bubble.

And one time, we gave the child a play phone and said, 'Why don't you phone him up and tell him to come to the lab?'

That was not a good idea because then we'd have to wait for the imaginary friend to show up.

'Is he here yet?

Is he here yet?'

I have a very deep fondness for a herd of cows.

They were little tiny cows, and they were different colors.

[ Mooing ]

And they were kind of like babies.

You know, feed them, change their diapers, that kind of stuff.

And the parents would have to tell babysitters, 'Just walk on tiptoe.

If you walk on tiptoe, then you won't step on the cows.

If you just walk regularly, then you might step on the invisible, colorful herd of cows.'

And as fun as it is to create whimsical or persuasive companions, many researchers see this type of play as a potential stepping stone in the life of a child.

The kind of mind that can reason about the past and think about the future is the kind of mind that can come up with an alternative and imagine things that don't exist.

So I think engaging in pretend and imagining kind of primes the pump to make people more creative.

And we're actually testing that in our lab right now.

We have an extensive interview to get at their fantasy orientation and to get at whether they have an imaginary companion or not.

Some children might fantasize about unicorns or monsters or flying.

Rar! Rar!


Others might be more grounded, playing house and becoming firemen.

Your daughter. Oh.

And then you have kids in the middle.

So maybe they imagine that they're a princess, or maybe they imagine that they're an astronaut.

So things that aren't impossible but they're unusual.

And we actually think that kids who engage in that type of imagination will perhaps perform on our creative problem solving tasks.

So, today, we're gonna play a couple of games, Weston.

You ready for the first game?


How do we play?

A little boy needs his teddy bear to go to sleep every night.

But Alex's brother put Alex's teddy bear way up there on that high shelf.

We look to see how many ways children come up with to help the little boy get his teddy bear.

Climb a broom.

Climb a broom. Okay.

A traditional way of measuring creativity is to see if children can come up with alternate uses for things.

He can knock it down with a yo-yo.

Intuitively, it makes sense that imagination would be linked to creativity.



But what were looking for is some actual hard evidence that it is true.

Creativity is just one facet of a child's development that might be connected to imaginary play.

When a child creates a relationship that is imaginary, there's only one person's ideas about relationships operating in that scenario, which means that you're getting access to a lot of what they know about relationships.

What can an imaginary companion reveal about a child's social or even cognitive development?

On the next episode of 'The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions.'

♪♪ [ Ominous music plays ]

The process of trial and error is built in to the scientific method, but science students often don't learn about the trials, tribulations, and outright failures of history's science rock stars, and that may be hindering them.

A recent study found that students actually improved their science grades after learning about the struggles of famous scientists, including Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.

Here to explain is the study's lead researcher, Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, associate professor of cognitive studies at Columbia University's Teachers College.

So, why does learning about somebody's struggle improve my ability to learn science?

I think that Marie Curie or Albert Einstein has been described, portrayed in our textbooks and the media as a genius who did not encounter many difficulties, and our kids build that into their head, as well.

When I look at a textbook -- We review a lot of textbooks in high school and middle school.

There's one statement that still sticks in my head.

It said that, 'Albert Einstein is one of the greatest minds that has ever lived.

He is most different from anyone you have ever met.'

So that text struck me as no one can relate to something like that, can measure up to it.

So when they figure out that he had struggles and he had to overcome them, he becomes, what -- a little more human?

They said that -- The students said that they were not shocked that scientists had to work hard.

They said everyone who has to achieve had to work hard, but they were shocked that they had a failure.


And they also said this makes them feel connected to them, because, in our measure, we found out not just science grades increased but also their connection -- feel connected to the scientists, can relate to scientists -- improved.

How did you do this study?

Four schools in New York City participated in the study, and we randomly assigned the kids to one of the three versions of the story they read during the science class and then discussed a little bit.

And so they either read struggle stories or they read -- I mean, achievement, like how brilliant these people are, just like what they describe in a textbook.

So before and after they read these stories, we gave them measures.

We also had their science grades as well as how much they feel connected to the scientists and in what way they feel connected.

And then, we found that, after the group who read the struggle stories outperformed the group who read the achievement stories, not only in grades but also in the connection.

They feel more connected to the scientists.

Another interesting finding is that the people who read the achievement story not only didn't improve, they did worse.

They did worse if they just read the sort of hagiographic hero kind of story.

And three weeks later, they did worse than before we started.

I mean, comparing to the other groups.

So this is funded in part by the National Science Foundation and published from the American Psychological Association?

Funded by NSF, National Science Foundation, and the press released by American Psychological Association.

So is there something that people who are not in school anymore can take from this?

I think that, even if you're not in school, there's still the perception about great people, that they don't have troubles and they just achieved because they were a genius.

Even when I came to the United States, I used to think all Americans write well -- they can write during their sleep -- until I discovered my professor also struggled, and that really shocked me.

Is this part of what motivated you to do this research, your own struggles?

There are two sources of my study.

One is from my personal experience growing up in China.

In our science classes, teachers always read about these stories to us about these great scientists, how they struggled.

And also, I did a study in China a few years ago to just find out whether this actually improves students' grades.

It did over there, as well.

And then, when I look at our textbooks, it's not the same thing.

And another thing is that, I discovered, you look at all the test scores and the international tests.

The Chinese students outperform our students.

I don't know if the two has to do with each other, whether how we portray the science and mathematicians this way that has affected them negatively, so I want to test the theory, if we bring -- if we help kids understand how these great people became great through failures, that would actually engage them more in science classes.


So, what should a teacher take away from this?

I think there are two things.

We really need to have a failure instruction in the classroom, which we don't.

And this failure instruction could include what failure occurred and how it occurred and how you can recover from that.

We're just trying to prevent them from making mistakes, which I think is not doing them a service.

Another thing, I think, in our textbooks, we need to humanize science and scientists by including more stories and narratives about how the content kids are learning came about, which they don't know about that.

Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, thanks so much for joining us.

Yeah, thank you.

A startup company at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is on a mission to make manual wheelchairs more efficient and user-friendly through innovative engineering.

IntelliWheels is developing an ultra-lightweight multi-geared wheel that is transforming the way wheelchair users around the world interact with their environment, providing greater independence and mobility.

Take a look.

I was a mechanical engineering student at the University of Illinois, and I was in the math classes, and I just really struggled with them.

But what I loved to do was design and really loved to talk to people and figure out, 'Here's a problem that we can solve.

Here's a problem that we can solve just by designing a new device or a new piece of technology.'

So, as a company, we started off by developing geared wheels.

Incredibly simple pieces of technology that just have gears inside the wheels to make it easier for somebody to push.

Just like when you shift to a low gear on a bicycle, it makes it easier to pedal up a hill or pedal across grass, the low gear in a wheel on a wheelchair can make it easier to get where you're trying to go.

So the I series wheels are ultralight geared wheels for manual wheelchairs.

They have no motor, no battery, and they're about as light as you can possibly get a geared manual wheelchair wheel.

One of the things that really attracted me to the project and to IntelliWheels is that, right from the get-go, they understood that they weren't just solving a problem of efficiency but they were designing a product that a person was going to use in their daily life.

I might have a very athletic background, and we've take some ideas from the athletic world that we're developing, but we're not really designing athletic products.

We're designing products to help a person throughout their daily life -- going to school, going to work, going to the store, whatever it is.

It's all about independence.

It's all about being able to do things for yourself, and that's what the geared wheels are for.

One of the most amazing things about the University of Illinois is, it was the very first accessible university in the country.

It began letting students with physical disabilities in in the late '50s and really expanded on those programs through the '60s and '70s until it really became one of the leaders in the country and in the world in accessibility.

Accessibility and students on campus, it's like part of our DNA.

Regardless of what your job is, everyone's aware of students on campus with disabilities.

But the work that Josh and his partners are doing, it's just an example of the power of an idea.

And the other part is that, it's not something or someone without a disability coming up with the solution for you because you're 'a poor person with a disability.'

It's people with disabilities saying, 'You know what?

We're smart.

We know how to do things.

We can come up with some of our own ideas,' because of their lived experiences.

The fact that we've got so many wonderful, smart, intelligence people who use wheelchairs around us, it makes it so much easier to create a worthwhile technology.

We would never be able to get anywhere where we are without the ability to talk to people who actually use the things we design.

That's the key to all of our success or any innovation we create.

What if you could hear climate change?

Physicist Robert Davies and the Fry Street Quartet are blending music and the science of sustainability to educate audiences and spur public action.

Let's listen in.

Robert Davies is a physicist by training.

He also feels it's important to share science with non-scientists.

I was giving lots of public science lectures on climate change and finding that the audiences were understanding the information intellectually...

But he discovered that lectures aren't always the most effective means of communication.

The information is telling them that they're existing on the edge of some very extreme risk, but it doesn't feel like that to most of us in middle-class America.

And so, how do we connect on a more personal level?

...functions and connections...

He found one answer in a field separate from science.

This is something the arts is just tailor-made for and serves us so well in society.

So I approached the Fry Street Quartet to see if they would be interested in collaborating on a joint musical project and then along with some other digitals artists to put this together.


This is what he calls The Crossroads Project.


I like to call it performance science as well as performance art.

It's a communication project that seeks to use and leverage the arts in service of communicating just some very critical ideas about global sustainability and climate change.


Davies recently brought The Crossroads Project to the University of Central Florida.

Before their performance, members engaged the university community in a more traditional setting.

We wanted to host a series of workshops that would engage both the students and the faculty regarding sustainable issues, understanding where individual perspectives come from, the types of behaviors that we're encouraged to engage in, as well as sharing ideas and solutions for the barriers and individual factors that keep us from taking part.

...what makes us feel capable versus what makes us...

Just hearing what students feel about the matter shows us how we should go about giving the information to other students so they don't feel guilted or they feel positive and want to be motivated to make a change on the UCF campus.

In addition to opening lines of communication, the workshop provided valuable insights for the Crossroads performers.

It's important for us, I think, as the performers on this topic, to hear where the audience is, to hear from their mouths how they're thinking about these issues, what their conceptions are, in some cases what their misconceptions are.

That informs how we approach it.

Certainly will inform how I approach tonight's performance.

♪♪ One thing that sound evokes is the music of a Spring morning.

♪♪ The performance itself is a series of vignettes.

I like to call it sort of a poetic science lecture combined with some very compelling imagery.

What the imagery does is allow us to show what the impacts of our lives are on the natural systems around us, the living systems around us, to include other people and other places.

[ Speaking indistinctly ] And then, each vignette is concluded by a movement of a string quartet, performed by the Fry Street Quartet.


I feel my duty, first and foremost, is to communicate through my playing.

♪♪ I think the music is one of the most powerful elements in the performance, the idea being that the musical space is the opportunity the audience has to really ruminate on what they've told.

16,000 plastic bags.

[ Speaking indistinctly ]

That thought process is the heart of Project Crossroads' mission.

The performance is really designed for people who already understand we have these problems but maybe just aren't behaving like it.

And so it's to take them to a place that motivates them largely on an ethical basis.

Asks the question, 'Is what you're seeing consistent with the person you see yourself to be?'

♪♪ The risks we face as a global civilization at this point are enormous.

It is not mandated that this will play out catastrophically.

Our aim isn't to educate you, really, on this performance.

Our aim is to motivate you strongly to educate yourself, and one of the aspects of that is just talking about these topics, among our peers, among our colleagues, among our families, certainly in our public lives, talk about it.


And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪