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Who Learns at the Lab School?

Reading to children at the UT Lab School. Image credited to Vivian Abagiu

Everyone's engaged in the Lab School's Pecan Room. Fledgling engineers debate the construction of a block tower. Bookworms explore bright pictures unfolded on laps. Clothing tie-dyers fiddle with the gigantic plastic mitts covering hands. Artists converse while snipping florescent straws with blunt scissors.

Dyane Correa, a recent graduate of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, ping-pongs among them. "It's your turn. We're going to do an experiment."

Within minutes, five are seated with legs snugly tucked under the rectangular wood table. Except Correa; she is a bit too tall. The children watch patiently as she fills a neat line of beakers with clear water, then primary colors, before helping them dip thin paper strips into the water.

"What color is this?" she asks.

"Orange—whoo hoo!" says a little boy.

There is a lot to learn at the Pricilla Pond Flawn Laboratory School. On that day after a trip to the Blanton Museum of Art, the children learned that yellow and red transform into orange. Meanwhile, hundreds of others, including Correa, are also engaged in learning. That's because the Lab School is a center of adult learning for School of Human Ecology professors and students alike.

Laboratories of Learning

The Lab School—one of the first nursery schools in Austin—was started by Mary Gearing in 1927 as a wave of interest in child development crested across the country. During the 1920s, the number of schools for children under five skyrocketed from three to nearly 300, as the newly formed National Association for the Education of Young Children encouraged professional standards and research-based instruction. Simultaneously, child psychology grew as an area of research, so many nursery schools found homes in universities. These laboratory schools functioned as both a pool of subjects for researchers and a training ground for future parents and early education professionals.

The Lab School today is an accredited and licensed early education center that serves 110 children between 18 months and 6 years of age. Today's master teachers mentor and guide Human Development and Family Sciences majors and other students in hands-on projects to better understand early childhood.

"Our teachers need to be extraordinarily present and extraordinarily knowledgeable to capitalize on moments in the classroom and create a scaffold for learning," explains Amy Bryan, director of the Lab School. "They also are university instructors and educators who teach a vast number of undergraduates about child development."

Benefit to Adult Learners

Each year, nearly 600 undergraduates pass through the Lab School. About half spend their time silently sitting among boisterous children on a few scattered adult-sized chairs. These students collect data on developmental indicators as part of a large child development course. After analyzing data, each drafts a paper that roots their analysis in the greater body of research on childhood development. They learn by watching.

Other students, volunteers and interns, however, learn by doing. For them, textbook discussions and information comes to life as they work with children under the direction of a master teacher.

"When I started working with the kids, I was so nervous that I barely talked to them, even though I'd had all of the child development classes," Correa says. At first, she analyzed communication—what works and what does not—from films of master teachers and herself. She was encouraged to see a complete change in how she interacted with the children between films.

Another recent graduate, Annie Prause works at the Lab School and has found applications beyond the classroom.

"My whole outlook changed because of working here," she says. "I've learned to solve problems with kids by getting to the source of their frustration instead of discounting their feelings. I have even used positive guidance in other settings," she adds, referring to the form of discipline the school embraces, which tells children what they can do rather than what they cannot.

"There is a reason behind all that we do. What guides us first and foremost is developmental science—how small children learn," Bryan says. "There are a number of adults learning here, and they all go on to do other things and use what they learned at the Lab School."

Editor's note: This story appeared in 2016's Gearing Up, the newsletter from the School of Human Ecology.

Undergraduate student observing and taking notes at the UT Lab School. Image credited to Vivian Abagiu