How do you convince 60 kids to spend a sunny July afternoon volunteering for cognitive research? Make it fun. Hire a clown. Call it Face Camp. This summer, under the direction of UVic cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jim Tanaka and developmental psychologist Dr. Ulrich Mueller, honours psychology students Kim Maynard and Natalie Huxtable organized the department’s first-ever kids camp, an event with a two-part goal: to collect research data while engaging children in the science of face recognition. Sporting matching t-shirts labeled “Face Expert,” the kids—aged seven to nine—rotated through Cornett building “face stations,” where they constructed Picasso-esque cubist faces, pinpointed expressions on Face Bingo cards and—the hands-down crowd favourite—watched their computerized photos morph with celebrity mugs like Harry Potter and Avril Lavigne.
While recognizing faces and understanding facial expressions comes naturally for most of us, this area is a struggle for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Asberger’s Syndrome, developmental disorders that impair social interaction. Current research suggests that these populations may perceive faces as just another object, with no more significance than a table or tree. In an effort to help these children develop their face recognition skills, Tanaka—in collaboration with the Yale Child Study Centre—has spent the last five years developing Let’s Face It! (LFI), a series of computer games that involve labeling facial expressions and interpreting facial cues. Initial use of the games by autistic kids has shown positive results, indicating for Tanaka the importance of further research. “We want to understand how the development of face processing unfolds with age and experience,” he says. “To understand the deficits of special populations like kids with autism, and how to improve that, first we have to know how face recognition works in typically developing children.” Enter Face Camp’s assessment station. Using a computer game from the LFI series called “Same Different,” the kids examined a sequence of 128 identical pairs of houses, some of which had features such as windows altered to look slightly different. Through assessing if the houses matched, the kids tested their object recognition skills. They did the same with faces. By comparing test results, Tanaka and his honours students hope to begin tracing the trajectory of face recognition across the age span. Funded by the National Science Foundation and held twice this summer, the one-day camp also featured prizes, a closing-ceremony slide show and a clown called Amigo, whose step-by-step make-up application revealed how to emphasize facial expressions. Twenty volunteers, including members of UVic’s Visual Cognition Lab, community professionals and high school students, pitched in as camp leaders and station presenters. According to a follow-up survey put out by Huxtable, the event was a hit. “The kids felt important from the beginning,” she says. “They didn’t want it to end.” Interest in Face Camp has already been expressed by both Burnaby’s Down Syndrome Research Foundation and
Recreation Integration Victoria, a group that helps people with disabilities participate in community recreation. Ideally, Tanaka hopes to hold future camps that integrate kids with and without deficits. “We’d like to take Face Camp on the road,” he says. “The goal has shifted from purely data collection to sharing the science, getting kids excited not only about face recognition, but about psychology and cognitive science.” Another on-campus camp—this one aimed at kids aged nine to 13—is slotted for November. Maynard and Huxtable plan to incorporate data compiled from the camps into their honours theses. “There isn’t a lot of extensive research that establishes facial recognition trends in children,” says Huxtable, “so that’s our main focus. The more we can practice putting Face Camp on, the more potential we have to make it something that can continue for years. If it can help kids with autism, that would be even better.”
By Courtney Tait