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Language Science, Pandemic Edition

In January 2020, a team of language researchers at the Ohio State University (OSU) won a grant to start offering popular science demonstrations in Spanish through the Language Sciences Research Lab, a working research facility embedded inside of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, OH. In the lab, otherwise known as the “Language Pod,” researchers from multiple OSU departments conduct research, recruiting museum visitors as participants. The lab serves as a research-in-real-time exhibit, promoting public understanding of and engagement with language science.  By adding Spanish-language activities to the lab’s outreach toolkit, the team aimed to promote a more linguistically diverse and welcoming space within the context of the popular science center.  

By the end of February 2020, graduate student Luana Lamberti had developed Spanish-language guides for demos, and two undergraduate students had completed training to work with the team to present the demos on the museum floor. The rolling out of the demos was to coincide with COSI’s hosting of an exhibit on Cuba in March 2020, focused principally on biodiversity.  The Spanish demos were designed to highlight linguistic diversity in the US and the Spanish-speaking world, as well as to enhance access for bilingual museum visitors. 

The launch of demos and exhibit stalled when COSI closed due to coronavirus stay-at-home orders (the science center has not re-opened to the public as of April 2021).  Among so many other concerns, the fact that the materials and funding were available but could not be used weighed on the research team.  At the same time, the team wondered whether they might be able to find a way to conduct outreach on language science remotely.

Lamberti, a graduate student in Spanish and Portuguese, and Shawn Barreiro, a graduate student in Linguistics, stepped in to fill the gap. Over the summer, they developed a series of five-minute videos using the existing demonstration guidelines. Developing the videos was a learning experience, since the original activities were designed to be used with the public in person. However, with the help of the grant team, Lamberti and Barreiro were able to adapt the content for a video format. For instance, in one of the videos, Lamberti created a character (tapir) with whom she would do the activities, in order to offer a more interactional experience to the online viewers.  In other videos, Barreiro adopted a direct-to-camera approach to explain the history and use of vos as a second-person singular pronoun in certain Spanish dialects, minimal pairs in American Sign Language, and the International Phonetic Alphabet. 

Working closely with Pod director Dr. Laura Wagner and using existing materials where available, they designed, recorded, and produced six videos on general linguistics topics, as well as two videos that specifically addressed the Spanish language.  Barriers included working from home with limited equipment and software, and noisy construction on a neighboring building that hindered Lamberti’s ability to record from her apartment. The videos were reviewed by the grant team, which also included Dr. Anna BabelDr. Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, and Dr. Leslie C. Moore.

The videos went live at the end of August and were featured on the COSI Connects website alongside the launch of a digital exhibit on Cuba, which had been reworked and reorganized for a digital format.  The videos were featured alongside podcasts in Spanish from guest speakers, as well as videos on topics such as Cuban cooking, dancing and music. After the Cuba exhibit ended, the videos continued to be hosted by the COSI YouTube channel as a resource for curious-minded guests.

While the materials for in-person demonstrations continue to await the museum’s re-opening, the Spanish-language videos are available for circulation and fulfilling their role in making informal science learning more accessible and better reflective of our multilingual world.

Update:  The museum is now scheduled to open June 4th and we have a new team of graduate and undergraduate students ready to go in and get working!