Student-Faculty Research

Poster session exhibits fascinating faculty-student research

Who was the only man in recorded history to conceive and perfect an entire alphabet? Could computer science students build an unattended ground vehicle that could win a paintball war with St. Cloud State? How can scientists discover climatic and environmental changes in Patagonia? How would imagined Israeli security fences in the Twin Cities (with Jerusalem being St. Paul) affect daily life?

These and numerous other questions were explored by 40 students at the spring Inquiry at UST: A Poster Session with the Results of Faculty-Student Collaboration at St. Thomas.

Part of a 2002-2005 grant of $445,000 from the Bush Foundation, which is matched by St. Thomas, funds student research using inquiry-based teaching methods. Students work on real problems often taken from outside the university in the ways they will be called upon to employ their disciplines after they graduate. Students who work collaboratively on research projects during the academic year usually are paid $1,000 and supervising faculty $500. The Young Scholar Grants, which fund full-time summer research, pay $3,000 per student and $500 to faculty.

“I believe that one of the most effective ways for students to learn is through collaborative inquiry: students and faculty working together on research that can have real world consequences,” stated Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas. “This is completely in keeping with our mission as a Catholic university grounded in the liberal arts tradition. We strive to provide a high degree of personal attention in a challenging campus environment that is engaged with the complexities of our urban community and the world beyond.”

Is it really true that more Baptists than Catholics in Indiana spend more money on charitable gambling? Well, yes. Does steganography work in hiding invisible messages inside computer documents? Yes, it can.

What about negative impacts of the commonly used herbicide atrazine on animal and human health? Senior biology major Sarah Larson found that atrazine, a herbicide whose negative affect on humans has been reported in many studies, is dangerous to fish and frogs’ reproductive systems even in very low levels in runoff water.

Is the Republican the authoritarian and the Democrat the nurturant or are they just being framed?  And what’s the difference between a “tax cut” (as Democrats say) and “tax relief” (as Republicans say, implying that tax is a burden)? “Ideology and the effectiveness of ‘the sell’ confound voters,” reported psychology senior Ingrid Johnsen, who interviewed 30 undergraduates and found that conservatives are more often influenced by the way a message is framed than liberals.

Senior Mary Dienhart, a journalism major, researched Sequoyah (1770?-1843), the Cherokee leader who worried that his culture was being destroyed by white domination. An ingenious silversmith who made metal type, he overcame years of criticism and constructed from an oral tradition a syllabary system of 86 symbols which “paved the way for a print culture for all American Indians.”

As for that remote-controlled paintball vehicle built by four senior computer science majors – Britt Hammerberg, Robert Kennedy, Cory Tranby and Ben Werner – it could not be demonstrated at the inquiry, despite frequent requests, because it fires 17 paintballs a second. The vehicle lost the friendly paintball war to St. Cloud but won first place for design in a project sponsored by General Dynamics Information Systems of Virginia, which works with colleges and universities to generate new product ideas.

“Basically, they gave me a starting point of what they wanted the project to do, but after that they gave me complete control over what exactly we were going to do.”

He estimated he devoted some 200 hours, June through August, to online research; in addition, the trio met weekly. They decided to look at the acceptable-use policies of various Internet service providers from the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.

Stierman researched more than 100 Internet service providers (ISPs), a “long process.” He was interested in whether American ISPs are more tolerant because of the First Amendment.  He found that they were, with most of the providers banning only “threatening or intimidating material.”

American free-speech protections have prompted a migration of foreign sites to American ISPs. “People from Germany and France, for instance, and other countries have started moving their Web sites over here because the whole European system is starting to regulate more tightly as to what content is acceptable,” Heltne noted.

“Neo-Nazis cannot host sites in Germany or in France. Denial of the Holocaust is against the law there, so those groups are coming over here.”

Stierman’s research was translated to the classroom in discussions about hate speech and the First Amendment. Heltne said that, at first, students favored rules prohibiting hate speech on the Internet – that “free speech isn’t worth it.” But as they continued their readings and discussions, the question arose: Who decides what is and is not hate speech?

“They realized that maybe that wasn’t the answer,” Heltne said. “Maybe the answer is to expose it and to expose the problems in our society rather than to try to regulate them out of existence, because that isn’t going to happen. It’s really interesting to watch the thought process.”

The trio enjoyed the faculty-student research experience. Bunton says it was fun, rewarding and a “great joy to participate. You never fail to learn something because the student approaches the topic differently than you would have, and yet you get to understand why he thinks that this is the way to do it or why she thinks this is the way. It’s great.”

As a bonus, the research also had practical applications for Stierman. He now deals with both marketing and technological aspects of Internet technology for Vivid Image, a Web-development and marketing company in Hutchinson, Minn., which hired him even before he graduated.