Last December, UQAM professor Julien Mercier, director of the educational neuroscience laboratory (NeuroLab), officially opened this innovative modern infrastructure dedicated to the study of social interactions in learning. The inauguration took place in the presence of Robert Proulx, Rector of the l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), Monique Brodeur and Josée S. Lafond, deans of the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, respectively, and professors Patrick Charland and Dave Saint-Amour, members of NeuroLab. NeuroLab’s state-of-the-art equipment was funded by the John R. Evans Leaders Fund of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI).
A new kind of lab
UQAM's educational neuroscience laboratory is much more than our familiar image of a big white space divided by a window, the subject on one side with a helmet of electrodes glued to his scalp, and a researcher on the other, in front of a screen showing the oscillating electric current from groups of neurons activated in the brain of someone "in the process of thinking."
"Why settle for studying the brain of an individual in isolation when most of our daily activities take place in the company of others?" asks Professor Mercier. This interpersonal interactivity is what makes NeuroLab unique and innovative, and its creators have managed to meet the formidable challenges posed by the synchronization of all the data collection equipment.
"There are a lot of labs like these," said the Rector of UQAM, himself a specialist in cognitive science. "But there is only one–our NeuroLab–that lets us collect data simultaneously on several people while they are interacting. It is a unique feature that unlocks tremendous possibilities, particularly for advancing knowledge about the learning process. With NeuroLab, UQAM is well placed to position itself as a leader in the study of social interactions in learning."
Enriching research in education
Measuring aspects of the functioning of the brain and the nervous system can reveal phenomena that are impossible to observe otherwise. "The most enlightening things we do as humans are done in groups, such as singing in a choir, learning a second language, learning to read or even teaching,” noted Professor Mercier. “At NeuroLab, it is precisely the interactions between a teacher and a student or between two students that pique our curiosity. For example, in observing a learning event, we want to know whether and when the teacher recognizes that the student is in need of help, as well as the effect of that help on student learning. And when we see that learners have made progress during a certain period, we want to know what happened over time throughout the process of knowledge acquisition."
With its state-of-the-art equipment for measuring and analyzing behavior (audiovisual recording, eye tracking, facial expression recognition) and psychophysiological indicators (encephalography, pupillometry, respiration, heart rate, electrodermal conductance), NeuroLab enables the study of dyads or small groups in interaction.
Learning, cognition, affectivity, neuroscience
The study of social interactions in learning, an interdisciplinary field anchored in cognitive science, requires intersectoral collaborative work within UQAM and internationally. The multidisciplinary team at NeuroLab plans to meet this challenge while responding to the need to train personnel doubly qualified in both neuroscience and the social sciences. This means that the staff and students at NeuroLab will develop expertise unique in the field.
The $850,000 grant awarded to Julien Mercier, UQAM Professor in the Department of Education and Specialized Training, and his colleagues in the Department of Didactics and the Department of Psychology, is one of the largest obtained by UQAM researchers in this CFI competition. NeuroLab is now ready for researchers from UQAM and beyond, as well as graduate students. A website, which will provide updates on the work at the lab, has also been launched.