As policy director at the University of Minnesota Extension’s Children, Youth and Family Consortium, Karen Cadigan, EdS, PhD, spearheads an array of seminars and other activities that educate Minnesota state legislators about the science of early childhood development. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle are brought together to receive the same science-based information in neutral settings that allow them thoughtful, nonpartisan deliberation — something they rarely get to do in the rush of public life.

Now, Cadigan is taking that work and applying it in a compelling format that seeks to reach the broader public. In an exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota in Minneapolis called “Wonder Years: The Science of Early Development,” cutting-edge research has been transformed into fun, interactive displays designed by a team of museum, developmental science, and civic engagement experts.

Cadigan, who is co-principal investigator of the exhibit, was inspired to seek funding for it after learning of an earlier exhibit at the museum called “Race: Are We So Different?” She was drawn to several features: It focused on a social science topic rather than “animals and fossils and rocks and electricity and light,” as she puts it. It featured interactive displays. And the museum convened hundreds of talking circles so people could discuss and debate what they saw. 

All of those elements are part of “Wonder Years,” which opened Feb. 17 under a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Here, Cadigan discusses her work and how she hopes it will spark civic dialogue in the area. That’s crucial, she believes, because the science speaks to challenging subjects such as parental responsibility, the role of government in family life and changing gender roles — topics our country must start to address in informed ways.

What kind of work do you do with legislators?

The model I follow is called policy education, which is different from advocacy or lobbying work. Policy education is about getting evidence-based information to state policymakers in a way that fits their interests and learning needs. We take time to ask legislators what kind of research they’re interested in, rather than coming to them with our own agenda. In addition, we provide information to them in immediate and consumable ways. That’s important for people who don’t have time to read the latest studies or wait for a briefing report next semester.

One way we do this is through “family impact seminars” — educational forums just for legislators and legislative staff on topics affecting children and families. We also hold brown-bag educational lunches with legislative staff. We bring researchers to the Capitol to talk with staff about “hot topics” identified by staff, such as childhood obesity prevention and using existing databases to inform policymaking. The family impact seminars model is part of a national program in which affiliates around the country bring research and evaluations on family issues to policymakers in 27 states and the District of Columbia.

What are the politics of doing this work?

We call ours the “Noah’s Ark” version of working with legislators because we always work with pairs, one Republican and one Democrat. Both parties are important and both political perspectives are valid. We make sure that the speakers we bring in are not coming in with a partisan agenda, either. That means we steer clear of topics that are politically charged. Instead, we focus on areas where there is little partisan rancor and where common ground and infusion of evidence could help.

What is the aim of “Wonder Years”?

At a basic level, it’s to get people to see young children, and to think about them as much as they do older children. The exhibition communicates a few key messages, including that early experiences matter in part because they set a stable or shaky foundation for the future; that relationships with parents and other adults are critical to early brain development; and that the human brain is malleable, but that it’s easier to build it correctly from the beginning than to remodel it later. In addition, we put the science in context by highlighting how early childhood development has implications for families, communities and even our economy.

An important part of the exhibit’s work is to facilitate various types of public conversations, including citizen conferences that we are hosting around the state. There, people have a chance to grapple with important issues and policies related to early childhood development, such as the vast difference between how much we invest in young children and how much we spend on school-age children and post-secondary youth.

The intent of “Wonder Years” is to not only push visitors’ thinking beyond individual behavior change with questions such as, “How can I better support the little kids in my life?” but to inhabit a broader perspective: “How can we as a society better support the development of all little kids?”

What are some of the most intriguing displays?

The science museum worked magic in designing these components. One display features these cool baby goggles that allow you to experience what a baby sees as a newborn at 1 month and at 3 months. At 3 months, their vision is pretty much coordinated and clear and about the same as adult vision. But newborns and 1-month-olds see things most clearly that are about six inches from their face, which is where a caregiver’s face would be.

Visitors can also see a human brain, neurons under a microscope, and can try their hand at tasks that babies are better at than adults. Identifying matching monkey faces is one of these that visitors really like — it’s much easier for babies than for adults because babies haven’t yet been exposed to lots of human faces.

Another display uses chocolate chip cookies to communicate the idea that both genes and environment matter. The ingredients are the DNA; the cooking process is the experience. So you take the exact same recipe, but you mix, prep and bake the cookies differently. So the cookies have different shapes, some are burned, others are cracked, and so on.

We also have lots of videos showing different aspects of early childhood learning and development, and we created a feature-length film with the Minneapolis public television station called “Many Hands.” It tells personal stories of risk and resilience and how communities can support children who have risk factors in their early years.

What information do you think is most surprising to people?

Babies aren’t just blank slates or sponges. Instead, their way of learning is much more like the “serve and return” of a tennis game: They reach out for interaction through crying, babbling, reaching and eventually speaking, and it is important for adults to respond. If the environment offers no “return” to the “serve,” babies can slow or stop their reaching out, which can impact brain development. People are also surprised to learn that social and emotional skill development happens in the brain to the same extent that cognitive and academic skill development does.

Are you doing any research related to the exhibit?

Yes. My colleague Dr. Kirsten Ellenbogen, director of evaluation and research in learning at the museum, will study the ways in which different elements of the exhibit design can serve as a catalyst for public dialogue. For example, which video elements prompt personal reflection in visitors’ responses? Which exhibit labels better support visitors’ learning? Her research is asking whether the type of exhibit element accounts for differences in the learning and attitude of visitor responses, when other factors are held constant.

I am also exploring how state legislators apply what they learn from the exhibit and from participating in our citizen conferences. In those meetings, they’ll listen to citizens’ discussion in an open, problem-solving setting, rather than listening just to one side or another in a setting structured for winners and losers.

Are there broader plans for the exhibit?

The exhibit itself is permanent, meaning it will remain installed at the Science Museum of Minnesota for the foreseeable future. For the next year, we’ll focus on getting people in the door to see the exhibit and talk about what they think. To do this, we’re partnering with providers like Head Start, as well as business groups, legislators and several communities in greater Minnesota. We want them to be able to use the exhibit for whatever meetings, trainings or special events they see fit so they can educate their particular group. After that, many people in our state and beyond have asked about traveling to the exhibit, and we may seek additional funding for that.

Has your daughter changed the way you see your work?

I love science and I love understanding through science, but my 2-year-old, Kathleen, reminds me of the importance of magic in life. Having a young child makes my work so much more real. She reminds me every day of how valuable young kids are, and that they are all worthy of joy and attention and patience and time.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.