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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Getting Psyched Over "Psyberspace"

Getting Psyched Over

"Psyberspace"

Animation:  Spinning globeA psychologist (sy-CALL-uh-jist) in North Dakota has found a way to test kids and adults all around the world without leaving his office. Guess how.

His name is James Penland.

So far Dr. Penland has been a part of nutrition studies in
China, Guatemala, New Zealand, California and Texas.


You may have taken psychological tests at school. They measure how well you remember what you saw or heard or how fast you can solve a problem or react to some signal like a flashing light.  
Cartoon:  Man with computer monitor head

But what's a "head doctor"
doing in nutrition studies?

I'll bet you already know.
Check by clicking here.

Trouble is, only a few psychologists are involved in nutrition research. And Dr. Penland may be the only one who does it full time.

So he developed a bunch of computerized tests—like computer games—using familiar pictures that scientists can use anywhere in the world. Kids in China, for example, recognize a piece of fruit or a stack of blocks just like kids in the U.S.

You're just itching to take some tests, aren't you?
(Click the moving eyes below)

Animated word "Look" -- links to first of three tests

Dr. Penland sends the tests to researchers on the Internet. They send back the test data to him in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He scores and analyzes the data and returns the results to the study leader—again, all across the Internet.

One long-distance study took place in poor areas in China. For this, Dr. Penland joined with Dr. Harold Sandstead at the University of Texas to study 1,400 Chinese school kids.

The scientists wanted to know if giving these undernourished kids adequate amounts of certain minerals and vitamins would help them learn better and stay healthier.

China looks like this!

Drawing:  Map of China
Photo:  Student taking computerized testsImagine giving 1,400 kids these tests ON PAPER while a test giver holds a stopwatch to measure each kid's answer speed. It would take
F-O-R-E-V-E-R! Some of the thousands of test papers would probably get lost or spilled on. If the test giver were tired, he or she might forget to run the stop watch or give the right instructions. The test results wouldn't be very reliable.

But that didn't happen in China, because a computer gave the tests and recorded the answers—even the answer speed—the same way every time.

Animation:  Boy typing at computer

The results showed that the kids getting a little extra zinc or zinc plus other minerals and vitamins could perceive, remember and reason better than the kids who didn't. This is the kind of information governments need to decide whether to provide supplements to needy kids.

--By Judy McBride, formerly Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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Last Modified: 2/14/2011
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