Faculty Spotligh: Dr. Sarah Kucker

Toddlers have poor social skills, are terrible conversationalists, cannot care for themselves, and have very imprecise motor skills. Yet, despite their relatively immature state of development, a typical 24-month-old child already knows over 250 words and, amazingly, learns an average of six new words per day. Understanding the impressive language development of children is at the heart of Dr. Sarah Kucker’s research. Dr. Kucker is an Assistant Professor of Psychology who joined the faculty at Oklahoma State University in 2018.

sarah kuckerAs director of the Language, Learning, and Development Lab, Dr. Kucker’s research broadly asks when, why, and how individuals learn best. Young children’s language learning is a particularly compelling case in which to ask this question.  Learning is complicated, but occurs rapidly at this age and has big implications for future development. To learn just a single new word, a child must parse the sound of the word from the speech stream, identify the referent or meaning of that word, make a robust connection between the two, and retain that information for use at a later time. Moreover, one has to learn that a single word likely represents an entire category of items – e.g. “cup” is used for both the child’s plastic sippy and the caregiver’s coffee mug. And this process is repeated for hundreds of words to build a foundation for the future. Understanding what supports successful learning, even in very young children, is key for identifying the processes that lead to optimal development and determining when development does not go as planned.

Dr. Kucker and her team of research assistants and colleagues have uncovered dozens of important factors that play a role in explaining children’s language ability and vocabulary growth. These include a child’s prior vocabulary, perceptual and attentional factors, opportunities for play, and even a caregiver’s personality. A current collaboration with Discovery Lab (a children’s museum in Tulsa) extends this work beyond OSU. In the museum, Dr. Kucker measures how caregivers and children communicate and interact while learning about STEM concepts in different types of exhibits. Most recently, Dr. Kucker and her team have asked how technology and digital media change the process of learning – a question that has become even more relevant during the past year. This technology work is supported by a grant from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.

While the question of how a 2-year-old learns a new word or an 8-year old learns about STEM may not seem relevant for anyone over 4 feet tall, the process of how we learn and continue to acquire knowledge is applicable to all ages. Indeed, some of the same factors that help children learn – asking questions, drawing attention to relevant features, having some prior foundation about the topic, and opportunities for hands-on experiences – are the same principles that foster learning in college and beyond. That is, understanding development is relevant for all ages and all topics.

Wingate Chosen for WFC Mentoring Award

190312 dr wingate reception 027

In 2019, the Oklahoma State University Women’s Faculty Council (WFC) developed the Outstanding Achievement and Mentorship of Women awards to emphasize diversity and encourage female representation in higher education and research initiatives. Three OSU women were recently named 2020 award winners for their achievements in their fields and dedication to addressing women’s issues and mentoring other women: 

  • Emily Graham, Associate Professor of History
  • Tonya Hammer, Associate Professor of Counseling and Counseling Psychology
  • LaRicka Wingate, Professor of Psychology.

Kay Bjornen, chair of the group’s Faculty Awards Committee, said she was impressed with the extraordinary talent and achievement of all the women nominated. 

“I’m always amazed at the quality of the nominations we get,” Bjornen said. “It’s clear these women have had an impact on other women, that they’ve gone above and beyond the normal scope of their job.”

Yet, Bjornen said, the awardees’ emphasis on mentorship of other women — colleagues or students — set these three women apart. She stressed the importance of mentorship in cultivating success and a culture of belonging.

“Recognizing people who care for mentorship is the very best way to create more mentors and to make sure that more people outside of the mainstream are successful,” she said. “At OSU we want to make sure that every one of our students and faculty feels supported and knows that they can ask questions and get help to be successful.”

WFC Chair Tracy Quan said she believes diversity is crucial to maintaining a thriving university community. 

“If we want to have a diverse workforce and give students aspirational mentors to look up to, then we want to make sure women have the chance to succeed,” she said. 

The WFC aims for the awards to grow into an annual event that includes prizes for the winners and an opportunity for more awards and recognition in the future. The WFC offers research awards for undergraduate and graduate students to reward achievements in research and creative projects, and the Ann Ryder and Clara Smith Endowed Leadership Scholarship for undergraduate students engaged in supporting women’s issues.

For more information, visit the WFC website, womensfacultycouncil.okstate.edu.

STORY BY: Kylee Sutherland | Communications Intern

MEDIA CONTACT: Mack Burke | Editorial Coordinator | 405.744.5540 | mack.burke_iv@okstate.edu 

Dr. LaRicka Wingate Honored for Inclusive Excellence

Ashley Cole Dr Wingate and Deja Cleme

Psychology professor Dr. LaRicka R. Wingate (pictured here, in middle) has been named the inaugural recipient of Oklahoma State University’s Dr. Patricia A. Bell Inclusive Excellence Faculty Award.

The award honors the legacy and impact of Dr. Bell, OSU’s first African American department head who served for three decades as a scholar, researcher and groundbreaking administrator. It recognizes exceptional accomplishments and a significant and sustained impact by a current OSU faculty member who furthers the university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion through research, instruction and community engagement.

Wingate “provides students, through teaching, research and community engagement, a better understanding and appreciation of the values of diversity, equity and inclusion as it relates to the American social, political or economic system,” said Dr. Jason F. Kirksey, OSU vice president and chief diversity officer.

“The selection committee accurately and appropriately characterized Dr. Wingate's achievements as noteworthy and transformative,” he added. “Unquestionably, Dr. Bell and her family will be delighted with her selection for this award.”

A privately established endowment through the OSU Foundation helps provide a one-time stipend of $2,500 to support teaching, research, and community engagement efforts, including work-related travel and professional development for the recipient. 

Story from OSU News. MEDIA CONTACT: Mack Burke | Editorial Coordinator | 405-744-5540 | mack.burke_iv@okstate.edu