Glendon psychology professor receives SSHRC grant for research

York Professor Evelyne Corcos of the Psychology Department at Glendon recently received a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) grant worth $40,800 from its Image, Text, Sound & Technology (ITST) program. This is her second SSHRC grant in as many years and will enable Corcos to continue her leading-edge research project using the latest technologies to promote experiential learning. Corcos was also awarded a SSHRC grant worth $50,000 in 2007.

Social communication in at-risk adolescents is the focus of Corcos’ research. Phase one of her project developed a prototype for using cartoons as tools for changing behaviour patterns. The second phase, aptly called screenPLAY, involves videotaping students who interact onscreen in situations commonly experienced by adolescents, such as discussing acceptable sexual behaviour, disagreements among friends and classmates or difficulties with studies.

Right: Evelyne Corcos

Corcos has created templates in which vignettes pinpoint particular thinking skills involved in social learning. For example, in one template, participants watching the videos are asked to determine whether they are viewing an instance of a stated behaviour. Having access to a written and aural definition of the behaviour, they must provide a rationale for their response and have access to the reasons provided by other users. Ultimately, they are asked to rank all the responses from most to least effective. To encourage consultation and add an element of fun, words contained in the definition are used in a timed scramble game. Finally, users are asked to create a vignette, using the comic-strip creator that addresses the behaviour in question.

ScreenPLAY is committed to protecting the identity of users by requiring them to choose an avatar that will represent them on the Web site. Currently available avatars not only allow users to choose a personality type, but also include a choice of emotions. 

High school students engaged in a variety of scenarios, which teens have identified as personally relevant, have already been filmed by Corcos and her team. Actors remain anonymous because film clips are converted to cartoon-like images using a process called rotoscoping. 

Corcos has assembled an extensive team for this project, many of which are York faculty or students, including York English Professor Peter Paolucci, who is translating the psychological aspects to the technological; database programmer Shirley Hu; Flash and Web programmer Boze Zekan; York student Fiona Dyshniku of Glendon’s Psychology Department, who is working on the videos and their content; York Fine Arts student Samantha Shute, who is working on the production of the videos; and graphic artist Fiona MacDonald. In addition, with the assistance of the Research at York Program and Work/Study Programs, students Javeria Arshad and Mohammad Affan Jalal are helping to research content as well as collect and analyze data. Student videographers assisted in the filming of video clips. 

Above: A sample of avatars expressing various emotions

“The technical challenges inherent in this project are quite significant,” said Corcos. “To date, all avatars are individually created on the computer; they are really an art form, a branch of painting. As you may guess, this is very time-consuming and expensive and we are exploring innovative techniques not only to simplify the process, but to add new and motivating functions.”

Corcos and her team have assembled a demo of 12 scenarios that is being tested on a focus group of students in Grades 9 to 11. She has also successfully applied for a parallel standard SSHRC grant to examine the narrative skills of adolescents from a new angle. “We know that many kids with social problems tend to have problems with language skills as well,” said Corcos. “Although screenPLAY will be useful as a resource for teachers and students, it is the research aspect that will provide insights into the relationship of language, cognition and social skills, allowing us to test hypotheses and develop theories.”

Above: Some of the teen characters used in the videos

Many additional benefits are expected as a result of using these tools. In describing what they observe in each scenario, players can hone their language and writing skills, as well as attempt problem solving about the issues at hand. They can learn to read between the lines in observing the behaviour of their peers, and place themselves in the shoes of others. ScreenPLAY is designed to encourage adolescents to develop skills for creating win-win situations, a technique that is learned, not inherent.

“In a multicultural society, such as ours, social skills are often learned outside the home. Among immigrant children, for example, issues of dealing with violence and the norms of the dominant culture are frequently discovered at school,” said Corcos. “With this project, I am targeting the full spectrum of high school students. They can hear what others have to say in a particular situation and decide what is effective. The focus is on the rationale – on thinking things through.”  

What does the future hold for this project? “I want to deal with scenarios that are part of teens’ everyday lives in a way that is both fun and collaborative with other teens,” said Corcos. “There is an infinite set of issues to be examined. New content can be added at any time and can be tailored to the needs of any specific group.”

Submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny