Research Continues, Despite the Distance

By Jessica Troskosky, August 19, 2020
Psychology professor looks at the objectives and defines a different path to engage students, no matter the situation.

With family members in Spain, an early epicenter for COVID-19, Judith Pena-Shaff, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at IC, began closely tracking the impact of the virus in mid-February. Pena-Shaff was certain that IC students would not be returning to campus as the spread of the virus gained momentum. She quickly began to prepare for a virtual spring semester that would reimagine what her student research team had been hoping to explore. 

Students in Pena-Shaff’s research team study issues related to human development, learning and education, and engage in the evaluation of educational programs. The team had been preparing to conduct a study on the effect of complex motor activity in the cognitive development and academic achievement of second grade students. They were going to see if, when exposed to complex physical activity — like martial arts — study participants showed changes in academic achievement and higher-level cognitive skills such as cognitive inhibition, working memory, and planning, commonly known as executive function.

“It was clear we could not conduct our studies after the break. But the show must go on. So, I focused on the student learning outcomes of our research team and adapted our plan.”

Judith Pena-Shaff, associate professor of psychology

Students had prepared  to collect data on brain activity using functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology with college students right after the spring break. We had also planned to start the martial arts training with a selected group of 7-year old children and the cognitive assessments during the second part of the spring semester.  

“It was clear we could not conduct our studies after the break,” said Pena-Shaff. “But the show must go on. So, I focused on the student learning outcomes of our research team and adapted our plan.”

woman putting sensors on a man's head

Pena-Shaff collects data from her husband, Kelly Shaff, for the team to analyze.

Pena-Shaff refocused the study to examine age-related differences in executive function. The team had collected data on themselves earlier in the year, as part of their training, and also on Pena-Shaff, who collected additional data for other age groups over spring break. The students collaborated to analyze the data, interpret results, and present their findings in a virtual environment, using the same format they would present at a conference, thus completing most of the team’s learning objectives. 

For now, Pena-Shaff has decided to postpone her efforts to study the effects of complex physical activity. This summer, she has turned her attention to further adapting to virtual instruction. She just needed to determine what study would allow for team research, collaboration, and the experiential education that is the hallmark of Ithaca College.

“Learning to work as a team is especially important. I put a lot of energy into developing cohesion and bonding as well as personal and group accountability,” said Pena-Shaff. “I’m excited for the fall study, which is designed to be engaging and allow us to meet the objectives of the team.”

This upcoming semester, students will examine how culture shapes socialization by analyzing daily activities in preschools. The data will come from videos on preschool daily activities from the Dominican Republic, India and Japan.

The team will find flexibility in the research structure. The setup will consider students’ new realities, provide remote access to the videos, and use video conference technologies for collaboration. The team will also have the opportunity for social sessions to interact on a more personal level to further build team unity.  

“As a community, we will learn to be flexible and compassionate with ourselves,” said Pena-Shaff. “Students will gain new skills and grow in ways we did not know were possible. Colleges will have the opportunity to provide greater access to education.”