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Lewis College team is a finalist for the Nayar Prize

Jennifer Miller and Carly KocurekIllinois Institute of Technology recently announced that an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Lewis College was selected as one of three finalists for Phase One of the Nayar Prize.  The project, “Game Development for Early Language Acquisition in High Risk Children” will be led by Carly Kocurek, assistant professor of humanities, and Jennifer Miller, assistant professor of psychology.

Previous research has shown that children from low-income communities are more likely to have significantly lower levels of language skills than children from higher-income communities. Interventions such as Head Start, parent training programs, and software games have been established, but these typically focus on preschool aged children. Issues with crucial aspects of language development including language processing and vocabulary size can begin as early as 18 months of age. With nearly 20 percent of children living in poverty across the country, there is a great need for early intervention tools.

“We are using a community-based participatory research model for this project. We will partner with families in the community to learn about problems they face so we can develop the best solutions possible,” said Miller. “We plan to work with families in the Bronzeville neighborhood so that we can serve the local community around Illinois Tech first.”

A toddler uses an iPad

In collaboration with Matthew Bauer, associate professor of linguistics, and Cynthia Hood, associate professor of computer science and engineering, the team will create a mobile game for children aged 24-36 months. The game’s objective is to increase vocabulary growth in children from low-income communities by producing a game that requires the use of fine motor and language skills, as well as parent-child interactions. The ultimate goal is to ensure that these children enter kindergarten at comparable levels of language development as other children their age.

“We will create a game that can be used with toddlers that is high quality, productive, and interactive,” Kocurek explained. “Our approach to this game is unique in that it is completely research-based—the design and content will be driven by the needs of our end-users and its effectiveness will be measured over time.”

“The continuous interactions among faculty and departments in Lewis College formed the backbone of this collaboration.” Kocurek added. “Not only is it an interdisciplinary project, but it is a cross-generational project as well. Several graduate students and undergraduates will participate in the project and the diversity of thoughts and approaches will be very beneficial.” 

Established in 2015, Nayar Prize was created for Illinois Tech’s faculty, staff, and students to develop innovative, multidisciplinary research projects that will, within three years, produce meaningful results with a societal impact. With research funding totaling $1 million, the prize package is divided into two phases. In the first phase, the three finalist teams received up to $100,000 each to fund their projects for one year. After that initial first year, the team that shows the most progress will receive $200,000 in phase two to continue work for two more years. If that team successfully meets the benchmarks and outcomes previously established, it will earn $500,000.  

Learn more about the project: