9/01/2015

In the Course of Research

This magazine article is part of Summer 2015 / Issue 82

Summer research at F&M has reached a high-water mark. The future portends still more.

 

A soundtrack of cicadas plays in the background on a quiet summer morning at Franklin & Marshall. The hustle and bustle of Commencement and Reunion has come and gone, and renovation projects on campus buildings move along at full bore. The new academic year, it seems, is ages away.

But inside the Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building, the heartbeat of the academic experience—student and faculty research—continues in earnest. And on this day, a longtime psychology professor is learning new tricks. Two rising seniors, Peter Mikoski and Gian Zlupko, are introducing Professor Fred Owens ’72 to the usefulness of survey questionnaires in gathering data for research.

“I’d never done surveys before. It was new territory,” says Owens, F&M’s Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology, who is conducting research into driver awareness in the age of mobile phones. He asked Mikoski and Zlupko to design questions to ask drivers about driving distractions. “It changed the dynamic a little bit, so I’m learning from these guys.”

Owens’ students are among more than 100 across the spectrum of the liberal arts who spent much of their summer break conducting research with professors—a longtime F&M tradition. Most of them did so through the Hackman Scholars Program, in which students undertake challenging, high-level projects to support research by faculty members (established through an endowment by the late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman). Other funds, such as the Eyler Fund for Biochemistry, Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant funds for translational medicine, and the C. Richard Puff Fund for Psychology, augment the Hackman program, as do individual faculty grants.

Student summer research has reached new levels at F&M in recent years, an indication of growing student interest in hands-on learning opportunities in their disciplines. It’s also indicative of faculty members’ ambition to create new knowledge, and the quality of the research itself, which has increasingly drawn external recognition and support.

“We can fill as many student summer research positions as we can make available, and in a broad variety of disciplines,” says F&M Provost and Dean of the Faculty Joel Martin. “The sciences helped lead the way initially but now we have robust participation across the disciplines, with social sciences and humanities strongly represented and continuing to create innovative opportunities for students to collaborate and create and conduct high-level research.”

The projects will result in posters for F&M’s Autumn Research Fair on Homecoming & Family Weekend. The collaborative work will also produce papers, articles, presentations, and perhaps a book or two. They will answer some questions and raise still more—fodder for future inquiries.

 

Driving with Awareness in an Era of Distractions

Owens and his students are trying to determine how aware drivers think they are on the road compared to how aware they think other drivers are. Building on Owens’ years of research about driver perception and behavior, Mikoski and Zlupko proposed questioning drivers about their level of awareness with regard to such problems as poor visibility at night and distractions from use of devices such as mobile phones. The data has flooded in, they say, but there's a long way to go before the analysis is complete.

“We had a lot of autonomy,” Zlupko says. “We spent so many hours just thinking, ‘Should we ask this?’ ‘What would be the importance of this demographic?’ Just little fine-grain elements that went on and on.”

More than 200 members of F&M’s faculty and professional staff responded to the survey, in addition to 400 students and another 100 individuals from a nationwide sample recruited online. “The hardest thing about designing a survey is to make sure it is short, concise and easy to understand,” Mikoski says. “At the same time, you want to make sure you get all the information you need.”

Surveys are fundamentally different from his research on perception and behavior, Owens says, because we have no empirical data about the participants' actual performance. “We’re not measuring their behavior, perceptual abilities and driving habits. Instead, we’re asking them to tell us what they think about their performance when driving. That struck me as an interesting spin.”

“I’ve been doing this for 36 years, and much of my favorite research has emerged from collaborating with smart students.”

 

Learning How to Fight the Air War in World War II

The question of how American fliers of the 8th Air Force in Europe mastered their new, technologically advanced aircraft is the focus of Assistant Professor of Government Nina Kollars. Compiling and analyzing the research with the professor is Andrew Santora ’16, a joint history and government major, and Richard Muller ’83, professor of military history and dean of academics at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies in Alabama.

Kollars focuses on political science with a military bent, exploring how American soldiers improvise on the battlefield and how the organization responds to them; Santora’s primary interest is in military history.

“It seemed like a nice way for both of us to collaborate and leverage the knowledge he has—Andrew has his own skills and knowledge sets, and while those are maturing, he can continue to learn about political science, the way we do research and the way I take my approach,” Kollars says. “He’s very much independent on this project, so he will ride the byline on this publication.”

Santora, a Hackman Scholar, helps Kollars sift through large amounts of archival documents and resources before synthesizing the data. In Kollars’ office in F&M’s Harris Center for Business, Government & Public Policy, Santora has created a series of large organizational charts of the 8th Air Force during the years 1942-1945. The displays depict how the “Awesome 8th” built, trained and maintained the massive system supporting its daring daylight bombing raids that ultimately reduced the Nazi war machine to rubble.

“At the beginning of my Hackman, the nuts and bolts were understanding who is where and what it means when they talked about, for example, the commander of the 41st Bombardment Wing,” Santora says. “The work I’ve been doing the past couple of months has opened the possibility of going to graduate school and doing something in political science or military history.”

 

Studying Soil Changes from Barren to Forested Lands

Along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border in southern Lancaster and Chester counties is one of eastern North America's last major remnants of serpentine grasslands, open areas devoid of forests that were burned hundreds of years ago by Native Americans for grazing purposes.

It is here, at the State Line Serpentine Barrens, that Associate Professor of Environmental Science Chris Williams and his two students, Yuning Bai ’17 and Carson Morris ’17, have been taking soil samples. Then they return to the Hackman Physical Sciences Laboratories, where they analyze the chemistry of the samples.

“As the forests have encroached upon these open areas, they have changed the soil-nutrient status by growing slowly and creating litter that doesn’t decompose very quickly,” Williams says. “We’ve noticed that as you go from traditionally open areas into the areas that were cleared of trees and then into the forest, the areas that were cleared of trees still have a forest-type soil. It’s not something we anticipated finding. It’s an unanticipated experiment, in a way.”

Williams says he finds opportunities while working with student researchers.

“One of the things they force you to do is to step away from the jargon of your expertise. They make you become conversant with a person who is up-and-coming in the knowledge of your discipline,” he says. “It’s amazing how quickly our students who are engaged in these really intense research experiences come on board with the knowledge and higher-level thinking that goes along with conducting complex research.”

 

  • research 1 Image Credit: Melissa Hess
  • research 2 Image Credit: Melissa Hess
  • research 3 Image Credit: Peter Durantine
  • research 4 Image Credit: Melissa Hess

Century Studies: Student Research in a Bygone Era

 

Among the hidden treasures stashed in F&M’s Archives and Special Collections are research papers completed by students many generations ago, including some from the early 1900s. Their titles give us a brief snapshot of the times—and represent an enduring research link between students then and now. A sample of the projects:

  • “The Child Labor Problem in the United States”
    James Egan, political science, 1914
  • “The Trend of Modern Developments in Railway Operation”
    Karl Honaman, math/physics, 1916
  • “Alcohol and the Saloon in Conflict with Society”
    Jarret Moyer, political science, 1916
  • “The Divorce Problem”
    William C. Marburger, 1920
  • “The Value of Chemical Analysis in the Determination of Soil Fertility”
    Lawrence Orner, chemistry, 1915
  • “The Balkan Question”
    Austin Grove, history, 1913
  • “The Horizontal Magnetic Intensity of the Earth”
    Stanley Beamensderfer, geology, 1908
  • “Buddhism and Its Influence on the People of the Orient”
    John Hollenbach, philosophy, 1915
  • “The Relative Value of College Athletics”
    Harry Brenner, physical education, 1915
  • “The Evolution of Civil from Gentile Society in Ancient Greece”
    Alfred Sayres, Classics, 1914
  • “The Principal Male Characters of Bayard Taylor’s Novels”
    Samuel Shelly, English, 1915
  • “The Causes and Effects of the Panic of 1893”
    Harry Raub, political science, 1914
  • “Home Rule for Ireland”
    Charles Ackerman, political science, 1913 
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