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Digital Media and Development

As a Science and Innovation Fellow, Ph.D. student Rosa Guzman Turco focuses on the power of technology to shape language and literacy development in preschool-aged children.
Rosa Guzman Turco

Rosa Guzman Turco, Ed.M.'18, still remembers her number from the lottery that landed her in a magnet high school as a 14-year-old. That number, she believes, made all the difference.

“Had I not had the chance at a different type of educational opportunity, my trajectory could have been different,” she says. “My friends would be just as qualified to be in my position, had they been lucky enough to go to that type of magnet school. I still remember my number, that’s how much of an impact it had. I just find that so unfair.”

Turco doesn’t want other families to experience this injustice. That’s one of the reasons she pursued a Science and Innovation Fellowship at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. Committed to improving the lives of children facing adversity, the Center awards fellowships each year to a small group of doctoral students whose work aligns with their mission. Turco, a Ph.D. student who focuses on early language and literacy development, and who works with HGSE’s Reach Every Reader project, was a perfect fit. She became one of four students awarded a 2020–2021 fellowship.
        
Turco first became interested in educational research as an undergraduate at Wellesley College. There, she learned how different developmental experiences can create advantages and disadvantages for a child — before that child even starts kindergarten. Curious, she dove into research, exploring language acquisition in the Laboratory of Language and Cognition at Wellesley, and then numerical cognition at the Harvard Laboratory for Developmental Studies — aka the “Baby Lab” — under the tutelage of Professor Elizabeth Spelke.

Turco was inspired Spelke’s method, which involved both rigorous research and the immediate application of that research. It was then that Turco decided she wanted to use the same rigor she saw in Spelke’s lab to make an impact in education.

“A lot of psych programs are primarily based on trying to find out, what are the theoretical and the foundation mechanisms that help us learn? But I was more interested in how to actually apply that knowledge to create products, curriculum, and materials that will help parents and practitioners develop positive skills for children, especially in language and literacy,” says Turco. “In education, you work with people from all academic backgrounds to investigate and drive change.”

"A lot of psych programs are primarily based on trying to find out, what are the theoretical and the foundation mechanisms that help us learn? But I was more interested in how to actually apply that knowledge to create products, curriculum, and materials that will help parents and practitioners develop positive skills for children, especially in language and literacy."

Today, Turco’s research focuses on the power of technology to shape language and literacy development in children ages three to five. She wants to know how young children are using technology and how any demographic factors might influence the relationship between a child’s development and his or her use of digital media.

“I want to collect the fine-grain details on how children are using technology,” says Turco, a research assistant with the Early Learning Study at Harvard, conducted by HGSE’s Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative. “For example, are they using educational apps, Skyping, or using technology in other educational ways? One of my hypotheses is that the relationship between digital media use and language and literacy skills might be positive for one income group, perhaps because of the way kids are using tech, and something different in other income groups. Basically, for my dissertation I’m trying to disentangle those questions.”

The Science and Innovation Fellowship at the Center on the Developing Child creates an interdisciplinary community of Harvard doctoral students dedicated to fostering innovation and enacting change in the lives of disadvantaged children. In addition to connecting motivated researchers from across the university, the one-year fellowship provides fellows with a stipend to support their research.

Turco intends to use this support to communicate her findings about literacy and technology to the community. Her goal is to help parents set practical boundaries around their kids’ technology use and collaborate in the way their kids learn through tech.

“One of the struggles parents express anecdotally to us is that limiting or structuring screen time is difficult, even in their lives,” she says. “Part of my eventual goal with my dissertation is to create recommendations that parents can incorporate into their day-to-day routines.”

Learn about the work being done by another 2020–21 Science and Innovation Fellow, Ph.D. student Jorge Cuartas.