Sammy Floyd

Undergraduate Discipline


BA, Smith College. PhD, Princeton University. Postdoctoral Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Psychologist with a focus on child development, linguistics, quantitative and computational methods, and neurodiversity. Author of papers on language interpretation in machine models, communication in child development, and language learning in autistic youth. Current special interests include historical language change, eye-tracking methods, dead words, and children learning language from peers (rather than caretakers). SLC, 2023–

Undergraduate Courses 2023-2024


A Window Into the Growing Mind: Research Methods in Cognitive Development

Intermediate/Advanced, Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: prior college-level course work in psychology and another social or natural science; a prior course in statistics recommended but not required

We have never known as much about the minds of infants and toddlers as we do now. Babies are better than adults at distinguishing faces of other races, perform spontaneous experiments with their toys, and even starting to learn language in utero. But how did we discover all of this? In this course, you will learn about classical and cutting-edge methods for studying learning and reasoning. This course will be a deep dive into multiple measures of behavior, starting with measurements of looking behaviors (e.g., real-time eye tracking, habituation paradigms, head-turn methods), reaction time measures, and naturalistic tasks and interviews with toddlers and children. We will also review the promise of neural methods (fNIRS, fMRI, psychophysiological), as well as their challenges. For each of these methods, we will explore how they shape ongoing debates about how best to design experiments, analyze data, and build inclusive theories that reflect human diversity. In the culminating project, you will design an experiment to test a novel research question, using one of our behavioral methods such as eye tracking or reaction time, and revise the proposal after peer review. During conference work, you’ll learn to use the method, implement the experiment, collect preliminary data, and present your findings in seminar. By the end of the course, you will have a strong understanding of several central research methods in psychology, your own perspective of the strengths and limitations of different approaches, and the tools to critically evaluate and communicate about published findings.


Concepts of the Mind: How Language and Culture Challenge Cognitive Science

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: completion of a social or natural science course

How does the human mind represent the world? And how do these representations vary across people? Could knowing a different language change how we experience time or even how we see color? Even seemingly simple concepts like “in” vs. “on” mean different things in different cultures, and words like “one” and “two” may not be linguistically universal. Indeed, the very course description that you are reading makes culturally-specific assumptions about psychology and implicitly assumes objectivity. At the same time, humans seem to share certain core experiences, such as perceiving events, creating categories, and recalling the past. Which aspects are shared, and which are unique? In this course, we will draw on research from psycholinguistics, cognitive development, and cultural psychology to learn cognitive science in a larger context. Critically, we will consider how each of those fields have been severely constrained by an emphasis on white, Western, industrialized experiences. We will investigate the broader social and ethical consequences of these assumptions and explore insights and challenges that emerge when we step out of this limited perspective. We’ll draw on primary and secondary sources, including research articles, literature, videos, raw experimental data, and audio recordings. Students will develop projects in conference work that combine their interests with the course content, such as designing an experiment to test cross-linguistic differences in visual attention, analyzing vocabulary from languages other than English, or replicating and reinterpreting an existing experiment using culturally-responsive practices.


How Humans Learn Language

Open, Seminar—Spring

By the time you read this course description, you have likely learned more than 40,000 English words. That’s at least an average of six words per day—and many more if you are multilingual. How is this possible? This course is about how humans come to learn language so early and so quickly among striking environmental variation. For example, caregivers in the United States often alter and repeat their words when talking to children, while caregivers in a Tseltal Mayan community rarely talk to children at all. And yet, children in both settings successfully learn language on similar timescales. At the same time, no two children are alike. We will explore how the spectrum of neurodiversity sets many children on their own communicative path. We will also consider variation in modality: Babies in deaf communities rapidly learn to comprehend and produce sign. What kind of learning mechanism could operate under such diverse inputs? Together, we’ll evaluate existing theories and try to generate our own new theories of language development. We will bring these ideas beyond the seminar room, drawing connections to second-language learning in adults, early childhood education, and social and economic policy. Students will develop conference projects that relate frameworks and findings from language-learning research to their own developing interests, such as observing how children innovate language at the Early Childhood Center, designing structured interviews to compare the grammatical knowledge of children to artificial neural networks (such as ChatGPT) or conducting a meta-review on the effects of early-childhood programs such as Head Start.


Psychology Advanced Research Seminar

Intermediate/Advanced, Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: Previous coursework in psychology

In this research seminar, students will gain valuable experience through a weekly seminar meeting focused on research methods, research ethics, and contemporary research questions and approaches; a weekly lab meeting with one of the faculty members leading the research seminar; and individual and group conference meetings with faculty supervisors on a regular, as-needed basis. The seminar component will include readings on, and discussions of, research methods and ethics—both broad and specific to the research in which students are involved—as well as the discussion of contemporary research articles that are relevant to student and faculty research projects. All faculty and students involved in the research experience will take turns leading the discussion of current research, with faculty taking the lead at the beginning of the semester and students taking the lead as their expertise develops. Weekly lab meetings will also involve reading and discussing research articles and research-methods papers specific to the topics of research being undertaken by each student and faculty member. Students will be expected to learn the current research approaches being employed by their supervising faculty member, contribute toward ongoing research in the form of a research practicum, and develop and implement their own independent research projects within the labs in which they are working. Faculty supervising each lab will also be available to meet with students, both individually and in small groups, on an ongoing basis—as needed and at least every other week—in addition to the regular weekly, hour-long lab meeting. Students participating in the Psychology Advanced Research Seminar will be expected to attend and actively participate in weekly full-group seminars, weekly lab meetings, and regular (typically, at least biweekly) individual and group conference meetings; keep an ongoing journal and/or scientific lab notebook; select and facilitate group and lab discussions of relevant contemporary research articles (at least once for each meeting type); work at least 5 hours within a lab and/or community setting, as appropriate for their projects; contribute toward ongoing research and practice within their lab or community settings; develop, implement, and report on (in the form of a short paper prepared for possible publication and a poster at the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Poster Session) an independent research project; and provide their colleagues with ongoing verbal and written feedback on their projects.



The Origins of Language: What Babies, Other Animals, and Machines Can Tell Us

Open, Lecture—Fall

Why is communication so important to us? We appear to understand messages from one another despite uncertainty, distraction, and ever-changing environments. Within milliseconds, we are often able to formulate a relevant response. In this course, we will consider central questions about communication: Are we the only ones who do it? When did we learn it? What does artificial intelligence (AI) like ChatGPT actually learn? And, what exactly is the point of so-called “small talk”? In this cognitive psychology course, we will start with an introduction to comparative research with animals, allowing us to consider other forms of communication. Next, we’ll turn to our own species, examining what findings from studies with babies and children can tell us about the nature and goals of communication. Finally, we’ll confront the “artificial elephant” in the room: neural networks. What kind of language have they learned, and how can we study it? In class, we will discuss the benefits and consequences of AI. Students should come prepared to engage with the topic of communication from multiple perspectives, including psychological, quantitative, and humanistic. Through small-group conferences each week, students will develop projects that relate the course to their collective interests, such as learning and communicating in Toki Pona (a philosophical artistic-constructed language), hosting a campus debate on the ethical consequences of artificial-language models, observing and analyzing children’s communication at the Early Childhood Center, or designing a behavioral intervention study that implements nonviolent communication practices.