Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Student-faculty research provides a priceslesss educational forum

“Inquiry at UST,” held Sept. 26, allowed students who had done collaborative research with faculty members to present their results and discuss them with faculty, students and staff. Abstracts of the students’ work also were published.

A St. Thomas Bush Foundation grant made “Inquiry at UST” possible. The Bush grant consists of about $450,000 over three years and is renewable for an additional three. According to Dr. Robert Werner, chair of the Geography Department and director of the Bush Foundation grant, “With renewal and St. Thomas matching funds, the total value of the grant is about $2 million. The purpose of the grant is to use more inquiry-based teaching methods and increase faculty-student collaboration. A lot of time and effort went into the research. From written and verbal feedback from people who participated, it seemed to be quite successful.”

The 54 research projects explored many topics: the combination of social and religious activism, the rhetorical statements of a garden in downtown Minneapolis, police-immigrant relations in Minneapolis, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successful campaign for the Senate in 2000, and the problem of providing a cost-effective and less obtrusive power source for physics lab experiments. One common theme existed throughout the student projects: The experiences of research and faculty collaboration were a priceless educational forum for students involved.

Why social activism?

While attending Park High School, Julia Hatler, a senior biology major and sociology minor, became curious why members of her home parish, St. Rita’s in Cottage Grove, had for years been committed to social activism and change in a particularly poverty-stricken part of Peru. Out of this curiosity sprung the idea for Hatler’s research project, “The ‘Red Diaper’ Phenomenon: Socialization and Religious Activism.”

Dr. Ellen Kennedy, Hatler’s faculty collaborator, a member of the Marketing and Sociology departments, and coordinator of service learning, said, “Julia was interested in understanding why Minnesotans would undertake trips with risks both political and personal to help. This is active, engaged, direct discovery, as compared to learning in a more traditional and rather more passive way from a textbook.”

To do this, Hatler conducted interviews of parishioners and then made observations during a 10-day trip to Peru. She understood the value of the work activists were accomplishing in the field, rather than examining the issue from afar. While there, she spent most of her time in Chimbote, a small coastal city, north of Lima. “The only real difficulty was the language barrier,” Hatler said.

Hatler presented her findings in a paper and presentation to the Sociology Department, and at St. Rita’s, where she offered suggestions for recruiting new members. Hatler, who found the research and faculty collaboration rewarding, said, “It was the type of learning that you don’t get in the classroom. Going to Peru and the mentoring relationship with Dr. Kennedy is not something that I would have been able to have in class.”

Hatler’s research was funded through a St. Thomas Young Scholars grant, and she used that money in place of a typical summer job. She found the fieldwork experience invaluable because of her future plans to do biology research.

A garden downtown

In downtown Minneapolis – with its concrete, bricks, mortar and glass – sits a small garden which contains a waterfall, a landscape of rolling hills and black olive trees. The Winter Garden – titled “the character of a hill, under glass” – was designed by Maya Lin and installed at the American Express Building in April 2002. It has changed the urban landscape at the corner of 10th Street and Third Avenue.

It was this addition to downtown Minneapolis, and how it complemented and opposed the urban atmosphere, that Alysha Boie, a senior from Maple Grove, Minn., researched for her project, “Maya Lin’s Winter Garden and the Rhetoric Within.”

A Totino-Grace High School graduate and a double major in justice and peace, and communication, Boie was introduced to the work of Lin – designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washing-ton, D.C., and other notable monuments – in Dr. Bernard Armada’s Rhetorical Criticism course. “One day in class we watched a movie on Maya Lin, and I was intrigued,” Boie re-called.

The main goal of the research was to gain an understanding of human communication through the analysis of corporate art and architecture. Boie studied the functional and the artistic nuances of the garden to determine the message Lin was trying to achieve – a beautification of the urban landscape and a subtle critique of corporate values and urban sprawl.

Boie admitted the project was difficult. “The main obstacle for me was narrowing the focus of my research. There also were minor obstacles like finding particular resources, but all of those difficulties were overcome,” she said. Armada helped Boie through those difficulties. “Working with Dr. Armada was very enriching because he has extensive research experience and was my mentor throughout the summer months.”

Armada enjoyed working with Boie for a number of reasons. “Students bring a fresh perspective, often without the theoretical jargon that can sometimes impede one’s analysis and interpretation of communicative messages. Thoughtful students will have as much to teach me as I do them,” he said.

Boie was thankful for the Young Scholars grant because it helped her get through the summer: “I spent the majority of my time on the research itself and did not have time for an additional job to pay for rent, food and other expenses. The grant helped me pay bills and was still with me into the beginning of the semester.”

Boie will graduate in May, but her plans are a bit up in the air. She’s going to look for full-time volunteer programs or other career opportunities but does not want to be out of school very long: “I definitely want to continue my education in the near future.”

Somali conflict with police

In March 2001, numerous tense conflicts erupted between the Minneapolis Somali community and the Minneapolis Police Department. A well-known incident occurred when a mentally ill Somali immigrant, armed with a machete and a crowbar, was killed by police officers. Numerous Somali community leaders and other activists claimed the police used excessive force.

It was this clash of communities that interested Danielle Fagen and prompted her research, “Police-Immigrant Relations: A Somali Case Study.”

Fagen, a senior criminal justice major, conducted the quantitative and exploratory study by surveying 89 Somali and Ethiopian immigrants at an inner city community center. It explored the perception of relations between the Somali community and Minneapolis law enforcement. Fagen found that there was a large amount of dissatisfaction with the Minneapolis Police Department, and many of those surveyed admitted high levels of fear, perceived prejudice and victimization.

These findings, though, were not easy to come by. “The biggest obstacle I faced was getting access to the Somali community,” Fagen said. “Many doors were shut in my face. Phone message were not returned. It was hard.”

Fagen also encountered a language barrier. “It is especially hard to design a survey for people who speak little English,” she said. To jump that hurdle, Fagen conducted a pilot study, which allowed her to examine the potential challenges her survey would face.

Dr. Shahid Alvi of the Sociology Department collaborated with Fagen on the project. He admitted that the findings did not surprise him, but rather confirmed his suspicions. Alvi enjoys working closely with students. “Today’s students are tomorrow’s colleagues,” he said. “I was mentored by some incredible people. I’m just repaying that debt, plus watching students discover things makes teaching even more worthwhile.”

Fagen was awarded $3,000 for a Young Scholars grant to work on the project, but it meant more to her than just the money. “This project reaffirmed my decision to go to graduate school. It gave me a taste of what research was like and I enjoyed it thoroughly.”

Fagen’s project also won the 2002 Outstanding Undergraduate Student Paper of the Year award from the American Society of Criminology, Critical Criminology Division.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign

Hillary Rodham Clinton is an intriguing figure in contemporary society. Whether you love her or you hate her, her involvement in government strongly interests people. This inspired Alyssa Samek, English and communication studies double major and women’s studies minor, to conduct her collaborative research project, “A Rhetorical Analysis of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Successful 2000 United States Senate Campaign.”

Samek analyzed Clinton’s televised ads, press appearances, speeches and televised debates. She paid particular attention to how Clinton was portrayed, perceived and received as a woman in politics.

“Clinton inspires me because there are so many people who don’t like her and that makes her courageous. She fought hard for people to take her seriously,” said Samek, who first heard of the difficulties women face during campaigning in a Women in Politics course at St. Thomas. “There is a line between being too feminine, and not feminine enough or too aggressive,” she explained. Samek also wanted to create something that would inspire other women to run for office. She feels it is necessary for more women to be candidates in today’s political atmosphere.

Samek, who hails from Blaine, faced some hardships in conducting her research. Trying to gather information in Minnesota about a campaign in New York was difficult because her access was restricted. She could not get an interview with Clinton because of her high demand, and also found it hard to obtain copies of all the campaign ads.

But Samek’s hard work paid off, said Dr. Debra Petersen, Samek’s collaborator and a faculty member of both the Communication Studies and Women’s Studies departments. She also is director of the Luann Dummer Center for Women. “It was gratifying to see how much attention this project received at the inquiry,” Petersen said. “Many faculty, staff, and students said that they have been eager to discuss Clinton’s campaign and Senate experience and that they really enjoyed seeing the campaign ads that we showed on a television screen. Their enthusiasm reinforced the importance of our work.”

The advantages of collaborating with Petersen, Samek said, were getting help with questions and narrowing her focus, along with becoming connected with people Petersen knows. “I have been able to get to know Debra as a person, not just a professor,” Samek explained. She plans to attend graduate school and knows her research will give her an edge over others applying. She also hopes to use some of her findings to “know what to do and what not to do if I ever run for office.”

Petersen noted, “Each time I work with a gifted student, I learn much about the subject matter but I also learn much about myself as a learner, including how I work with others and how I respond to those who might have different experiences and opinions that they bring to the research project.”

Energy at a lower cost

Greg Ogin, a fourth-year student from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, started his research project for the Physics Department to save money. In order to accomplish some of the necessary lab experiments, expensive and cumbersome power supplies are needed. Collaborating with physics professor Dr. Martin Johnston, Ogin set out to redesign a power supply that would produce energy at a lower cost.

The two-year project is still in progress, according to Ogin, who is majoring in physics, applied mathematics and electrical engineering. “But,” he said, “it is a good example of how things work in the engineering world. It is an ongoing process and very challenging.”

During the first summer, Ogin helped work out a theoretical design that would accomplish his goal. This past summer was spent putting together a prototype. He is working on the technical debugging process. Throughout, there have been difficulties. “It is a real-life experience with ups and downs, but has been incredibly rewarding,” said Ogin. “It’s nice to be able to look at something and say I actually built that.”

Johnston agreed that students take much from collaborations. “It is not about what I gain; rather, it is about what the student gains. In the Physics Department we view collaboration with students on research as an excellent way to teach. Research collaboration integrates the classroom with the laboratory. Ideas move from the blackboard to the workbench,” he explained.

Both Ogin and Johnston credit St. Thomas for offering opportunities for such collaborative research. “Research projects like this are one of the major benefits of attending a small school. I would not have had this opportunity at a larger school,” Ogin said. Johnston added, “I love it. The opportunity to involve students in research is what brought me to St. Thomas.”

Senior Andy Pieper is an English major from New Prague, Minn. After graduating in May, he plans to teach English as a foreign language in Prague, Czech Republic, for a year, and afterward attend graduate school.