Research News

Vlach part of team that receives support from UW2020: WARF Discovery Initiative

August 03, 2016

Fourteen research and infrastructure projects with the potential to transform robotics, cancer treatment, data science and more have been selected by the UW-Madison Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education for support from the UW2020: WARF Discovery Initiative.

Reviewers chose from nearly 120 proposals outlining early-stage studies and investments in instruments and equipment aimed at providing important momentum to interdisciplinary research that could soon merit more attention and outside funding. The award recipients are the second set of UW2020 awardees, following 14 awards announced in April. In the second round, UW2020 provides an average award of about $360,600 over two years for the successful proposals.

“This group of UW2020 proposals illustrates the depth of our faculty’s commitment to innovative research,” says Marsha Mailick, UW–Madison vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “We believe that these projects will make a lasting impact by improving lives and expanding our understanding of the natural world.”

Haley Vlach
The School of Education’s Haley Vlach is a co-principal investigator on one of the projects that is receiving backing in this latest round of UW2020 funding. The initiative is titled, “From Simple Words to Complex Ideas: Understanding the Role of Language in Learning.”

This project is being led by principal investigator Gary Lupyan, an associate professor of Psychology, with Heather Kirkorian, an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies, also working with the team as a co-principal investigator.  Vlach is an assistant professor with the No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology.

“I am looking forward to working with a team of faculty and graduate students across campus,” says Vlach. “An interdisciplinary approach to studying children's language learning is likely to yield new insights into the early factors that drive children's academic success.”

A description of their project explains how “children from different backgrounds have vastly different experience with language. Research shows that by age 3, children from poorer and less educated families hear 30 million fewer words than children from families of higher socio-economic status, and the effects on the size of their own vocabularies are apparent in children younger than 2. Vocabulary size at only 24 months of age predicts both behavior and academic performance — in reading and even more strongly in math — when kids enter kindergarten.”

The project description continues: “In response, dozens of large-scale programs have been launched around the country trying to increase the vocabulary of young children. And yet, no one knows why childhood vocabulary is predictive of later academic success.”

The researchers then explain how “we believe that the answer lies in viewing language not simply as a communicative system, but a system that allows humans to form more effective conceptual categories. Our work will investigate whether words, by serving as compact and efficient hypotheses, enable children to better learn new concepts. In a very real sense, learning words may help us learn. We seek to explain why language skills are so predictive of academic success, because understanding the responsible mechanism will in turn boost academic performance by supporting far more effective interventions for children who lag behind.”

Adds Vlach: “We encourage parents and educators to increase the number of words children learn by reading to children early and often, talking directly to children, reducing children's screen time, etc.  However, researchers don't know why the quantity of words children learn matters for later academic success.  This work will improve our understanding of why and how children's thinking is shaped by language.”

UW2020 was underwritten in its first year by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) with combined funding from other sources to launch this program.

“WARF is pleased once again to support highly innovative, early stage research and scholarship, and new infrastructure projects that have the potential to fundamentally transform fields of study and improve the chances of future extramural funding,” says Erik Iverson, WARF managing director.

The projects were reviewed by faculty from across the university. Final selections were made by the UW2020 Council, a group of 17 faculty from all divisions of the university. They evaluated the merits of each project based on the reviews and their potential for making significant contributions. Funded projects include 105 faculty and academic staff investigators from eight schools and colleges.

To learn more about all of the most recent UW2020 projects that received funding, check out this University Communications news release.