| NEWS | EARLY YEARS
A fascinating new study published online last week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that babbling babies—starting as early as 4 months old—pay close attention to the mouths of adult speakers. The little ones are studying our mouths, say the researchers, to figure out how to shape their own to make a particular sound.
As the baby babble gives way to actual syllables and first words, the little ones stop studying lips and return their gaze to adult eyes, say psychologist David Lewkowicz and psychology graduate student Amy Hansen-Tift, both of Florida Atlantic University.
The researchers tested 179 infants from English-speaking families who were 4, 6, 8 or 12 months old and used special devices to track where the babies looked when they were shown a video of a female English speaker and a female Spanish speaker. The 4-month-old babies tended to look into the eyes of both speakers, but those who ranged from 6 months to 10 months old, focused on the mouths of both English and Spanish speakers, they found.
The babies who were closer to 12 months old and were budding talkers spent more time looking into the eyes of the English speaker, but continued to focus on the lips of the woman speaking the unfamiliar language of Spanish just like the younger infants. Researchers said those babies still needed to study the mouth of the speaker of the unfamiliar language to figure out how to make those sounds.
—Lesli A. Maxwell
| NEWS | COLLEGE BOUND
Most people can point to a special person or two who made a difference in their journey to where they are today. Having a mentor can be especially important in college, as students try to figure out their career path, stay focused in school, and get the right experience to prepare them for life beyond campus.
Ashton Jafari, 25, and Stephanie Bravo, 26, felt so strongly about the impact that mentors had on their lives that they set up a national network to pair students and professionals. StudentMentor.org was launched two years ago as an online platform to connect students—first college students and now high schoolers, as well—with mentors willing to share their experience. Funded by grants from foundations and corporations, the network ofers the program for free to participants.
Too often, schools don’t have the resources to help first-generation college students in need of career advice, says Ms. Bravo, the president of StudentMentor.org and herself a first-generation college student who didn’t find the guidance she needed initially at a large public university. Ms. Jafari, the executive director of the organization, says lack of access to professional advice hurts students—and ultimately, college-completion rates. Research shows, not surprisingly, that students who have an early, clear career focus are more likely to finish their degree.
“It’s hard to go to class when you don’t know what you want to do,” said Ms. Jafari.
With StudentMentor.org, students can request a match with someone to help with time management, study skills, career advice, internships, and financing education. About 90 percent of the student-mentor exchange happens online. But students and mentors do meet in person or via Skype, as well. On average, mentorships last several months.
Most college students seeking mentors are freshmen and sophomores. Now, StudentMentor.org is beginning to work with high school students. Charter high schools in California interested in promoting retention for graduating seniors have partnered with the organization to match students with professionals. —Caralee Adams
| NEWS | CURRICULUM MATTERS
A new study casts doubt on the popular notion that a gender stereotype—namely, that girls are bad at math—explains why men dominate the higher levels of mathematics achievement and accomplishment. The researchers suggest that evidence is “weak at best” for what’s been called the “stereotype threat” explanation.
They suggest this comes at a real cost, because focusing interventions on this particular issue leads to neglect of other, and possibly more promising, paths to better gender balance in the math field.
“The stereotype theory really was adopted by psychologists and policymakers around the world as the final word, with the idea that eliminating the stereotype could eliminate the gender gap,” David Geary, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, said in a press release. “However, even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued. We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed.”
The new study, co-authored by Mr. Geary and Giljsbert Stoet, from the University of Leeds, in England, will soon be published in the journal Review of General Psychology.
The two researchers examined20 studies that sought to replicate the original 1999 research on the stereotype threat. In doing so, they say they discovered that many of the subsequent studies had serious flaws, including the lack of a male control group and improperly applied statistical techniques. It says that while most researchers agree that gender differences exist in math achievement at the higher levels of performance, “the really interesting question is what factors contribute to these differences, especially given that it will be impossible to close the gender gap without understanding these factors.”
The researchers continue: “When policymakers believe that achievement differences in mathematics can be overcome by simply reducing stereotypical beliefs (as the literature suggests), they might not be willing to invest in the study of other potential contributing factors and thus will not pursue solutions for these factors.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the Week