(VIDEO) With the new technology, the center is looking for collaborative research opportunities.
Texas Tech University wasn't always on the leading edge of child development research – and as an institution that primarily focused on agriculture in its early years, perhaps that's no surprise.
Now, 88 years after opening its first campus child care center, Texas Tech is back on that leading edge with state-of-the-art equipment to enable new research efforts of all kinds.
The old CDRC
In 1931, Texas Technological College opened a child development lab during the summer as part of the Home Management House, where home economics majors worked and studied. With the completion of a new building in 1938, the nursery school expanded to become available for the full school year. Part of an addition to the home economics building in 1979 became the new Child Development Research Center (CDRC). It was designed as classrooms and included what was then considered a high-tech observation room.
"On the east corridor, where the Personal Financial Planning conference room and computer lab are now located, there was a large facility for children – an infant and toddler lab," said Lynn Huffman, special projects director for the College of Human Sciences. "There was a corridor leading to the outside, and on either side of the hallway were the entrances to the two large areas for the children. The walls were one-way mirrors, allowing observation of the children. I am not sure if there were any other monitoring systems like cameras there – I doubt it."
In the 1990s, the center was expanded into a full-time child care facility and reorganized to simultaneously provide hands-on experience for students majoring in early childhood education and human development. As these programs grew, so did the number of families trying to enroll their children.
"We had a busting waiting list of children and families who were trying to get in; we really just couldn't meet the need," said Stacy Johnson, director of the CDRC. "We couldn't accommodate the number of students who needed to take lab courses here and to have both observational and hands-on experiences.
"In addition, we really had inadequate facilities to conduct research. We didn't have a place for researchers to go and use a separate space. We didn't have a place for them to be unobtrusive in their observations."
That, she says, was the catalyst for the current building. Thanks to major contributions from the Helen Jones Foundation Inc. and The CH Foundation, the Christine DeVitt and Helen DeVitt Jones Child Development Research Center became a reality.
The new CDRC
When the new building opened in August 2006, it allowed the center to expand from three classrooms to six, meaning it could accept more than twice as many children, and it provided a space for the more than 600 Texas Tech students who worked with them. It featured observation rooms separated from the classrooms by glass walls, innovative play areas with sand and water rooms for arts and crafts, and technology designed to enhance both research and child safety, including electric-key cards.
"One of the neatest things we have is our state-of-the-art research-technology control room," Marjie Collins, then lead specialist at the center, told the Daily Toreador at the building's grand opening.
The research-technology control room was equipped with a computer and television monitors linked to video cameras in the classrooms and play areas.
"When we moved into this building, we put in a video recording system, and it was state-of-the-art at the time we moved in," Johnson recalled. "Then, right after we moved in, state-of-the-art changed from analog to digital."
Old and new again
This wasn't immediately a problem, because the analog equipment still worked – until it didn't.
"Once pieces failed, they could not be repaired because they were obsolete and couldn't be replaced with newer equipment without upgrading everything to digital," Johnson explained. "As more pieces failed, the equipment became unusable."
At one point, the audio only worked intermittently in some of the classrooms and the ability to record video was lost altogether.
"That pretty much brought all the equipment use to a halt," Johnson said.
"We went searching for a way to replace this equipment, and we were again supported by the Helen Jones Foundation with a large grant to replace all of the equipment with digital equipment. The cameras, the microphones and the interface touch panels to this equipment all had to be updated."
"The new equipment is really great because it allows us to do very focused observations in the classrooms without having to be physically present," Colwell said. "It's much more naturalistic for the children because they don't know we're in there recording them. It also allows us to look both at individual interactions children may have with each other or with a teacher and look globally at what's happening within the classroom context."
In addition to observation rooms, where researchers can sit and watch unnoticed from behind glass, each of the center's six classrooms now houses five cameras and eight microphones, all operated by computers in the control room. Using the touch screen system, researchers can select the classroom they want to observe, isolate which microphone they want to hear audio from, and zoom in the cameras to even clearly read text from across the room. All this information can be recorded simultaneously and saved to a thumb drive for researchers to take with them.
"We actually accommodate several hundred people every semester – both students, undergraduate and graduate researchers, students from our own program and students from across campus," Johnson said. "This equipment allows researchers to collect information and have it recorded, so it really is everything you can do in the observation room, except we can really zoom in and see and hear in a much narrower space than you can in the observation rooms."
Colwell, like many researchers, sees the benefits of such a setup.
"It would be harder to do the research without the new equipment we have, because it really allows us to get more precise observations, a lot clearer video and audio than we could get by using a different type of system," Colwell said.
"It's opened up new opportunities for things we can do, and my research team is currently planning some projects that, specifically, are going to highlight some of the things we can do with the equipment that we haven't been able to do in the past. We're really excited to know we have that tool now to do some things we haven't been able to do previously."
Colwell isn't the only researcher now considering new possibilities. In talking with people from across campus, Johnson has witnessed people from many different departments beginning to think about how they could utilize the CDRC in their own work.
"You can kind of see the ideas forming – things they really didn't ever think about being able to accomplish before," Johnson said.
"We have had interest from other departments and colleges in the past," Johnson added.
"Architecture, looking at lighting and children's design; interior design; nutrition – we serve food here, you know; clothing design – we had interest in the past in measuring children's bodies and their clothing choices. Now that we have these capabilities, we're looking for more opportunities to partner with people across campus and are happy to talk with them about ways in which we could do that."