by Denise Alexander
“Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.”
John Dewey, considered the father of progressive education, penned these words nearly a century ago. Since that time, many educational theorists have advocated empowering students to become world-changing thinkers by teaching them how to formulate good questions and push at the boundaries of knowledge in the pursuit of answers. In fact, engaging students in research and experimentation has long been widely endorsed as integral to a comprehensive education.
However, the idea of empowering students to explore the “what ifs” and “whys” of the world has too often been given only lip service or, at best, sporadic implementation. And the results of passive, learn-by-rote, teach-to-the-tests education are clear. Alarming studies detail the failures of America’s public schools and the rate at which U.S. students are falling behind their peers in nations around the world.
As a result, preparing young Americans to be critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers is increasingly being seen as a national priority. In a 2009 speech to the National Academy of Sciences, President Barack Obama committed his Administration to a renewed emphasis on education in mathematics and the sciences – disciplines in which experimentation and problem-solving have long played a central role.
While headlines tend to focus on the need to improve science education, the value of engaging students in scholarly inquiry can be seen in all disciplines, and institutions of higher education are now “ground zero” for a resurgence of interest in inquiry learning.
At Marymount University, for example, engaging students in active, inquiry-based learning has been identified as a key academic priority. A university-wide program has been developed to ensure that learners in every discipline undertake projects that involve in-depth research, original thinking, and hands-on problem solving.
Dr. Liane Summerfield, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, explains: “There have always been opportunities for student research at Marymount, but it was all very decentralized. As part of our 2008 reaffirmation of accreditation process, we needed to choose a single strategic focus that we believed would significantly enhance the quality of our students’ learning experience. We settled on inquiry learning, and it was decided that one of the University’s goals for the next decade would be a philosophical and financial commitment to this concept. We have spent the past three years establishing a structure to more fully engage faculty and students in inquiry learning at the undergraduate level, while also affirming the critical role that research plays at the graduate level.”
The positive results of this initiative, called the DISCOVER program, are increasingly evident. Marymount’s eighth annual Student Research Conference, held on April 13, featured poster and oral presentations representing all of the University’s discipline areas. More than 70 students, ranging from freshmen to doctoral candidates, were on hand to talk about their scholarly work.
With topics ranging from cybersecurity issues and disease prevention to nationalism and the role of spirituality in marital relationships, the projects presented at the conference reflected the breadth of intellectual inquiry at Marymount University. Some projects stemmed from ongoing faculty research, with students being given the opportunity to collaborate with their mentors on scholarly work destined for publication in professional journals or presentation at national and international conferences. In other cases, the projects were conceived by the students themselves, who then sought out faculty mentors to provide guidance for their inquiry process.
The encouragement of a faculty mentor was a critical factor in the development of many of the students’ research interests. For example, Tim Brezinski, a 2011 graduate of Marymount’s Information Technology program, explored the role of cybersecurity in modern warfare and how governments determine policies related to cyberspace. His poster presentation, titled The Art of War and Governance in Cyberspace, addressed issues of cyber warfare, cyber defense, and cyber exploitation.
Tim explains, “My project actually started with a paper I wrote for a Cybercrime and Digital Terrorism class in my junior year. Last fall, I was reworking the paper to submit with job applications, and I asked Dr. Diane Murphy, chair of MU’s Department of Information Technology and Management Science, to review it. She checked it for accuracy and suggested some additional research materials. Then, over the course of the semester, she kept asking me to present at the Student Research Conference. So I finally said yes, and registered for her IT Research course.”
Due in part to his research project, Tim Brezinski has been awarded a National Science Foundation Scholarship for Service, which will pay for two years of graduate study in information security in return for two years of service to the federal government upon graduation. He will begin working toward his M.S. in Computer Science at The George Washington University this fall.
Tabatha Kane, a 2011 Marymount Nursing graduate, found that initial spark of interest in a course called Research and Evidence-based Practice. Working with her mentor, Assistant Professor of Nursing Dr. Faith Claman, Tabatha undertook a clinical study on ways to prevent ventilator-associated pneumonia, one of the leading hospital-acquired infections in an ICU setting. The clinical question studied was whether the use of silver-coated endotracheal tubes was effective in reducing ventilator-associated pneumonia in adult patients.
Tabatha’s project reflects the fact that not all research with potentially life-saving implications is done in a lab. She explains, “My research was based on a review of the existing evidence-based literature. The results indicate that the use of silver-coated endotracheal tubes has prevented pneumonia in intubated patients; however, this should not be employed as an isolated intervention. Used in combination with other infection-prevention strategies, silver-coated endotrachial tubes can make a significant difference. Additional research is needed to further substantiate these findings and explore which interventions are most effective when used in combination.”
Although Tabatha graduated in May, she is continuing to work with Dr. Claman this summer to explore opportunities for publication of her research.
The social sciences were also well represented at this year’s Student Research Conference. Jo Ann McLaughlin, a 2011 Honors Program graduate, presented her work on Christian Principles and Values in Marriage Counseling. Jo Ann chose this as her Honors Thesis topic based on her academic interests and an intuitive hypothesis that more research is needed on the topic.
She conducted a qualitative study with a focus group of counselors and clergy. The results, she says, indicate that there is a place for Christian values in the counseling field and a need for additional training for practicing mental health professionals, in order to better serve clients who identify faith as important to their lives.
Jo Ann, who plans to earn a master’s degree in Counseling, feels that she’s been well prepared to pursue further research. She says, “Throughout my senior year, I worked very closely with my advisor, Dr. Amy Van Arsdale. She read over a dozen drafts of my paper to make sure that both the research content and the presentation met professional standards. I’m glad that she pushed me as much as she did.”
Not all of the MU student researchers pursued the “lone-scientist” path. Several of the conference presenters worked in teams – a beneficial strategy that brings individuals with different expertise and viewpoints together to focus on a shared objective.
That was certainly the case with the project undertaken by Stacey Cole ’11, a Biology major, and Hannah Korbach ’12, a Mathematics major, who chose to work together on Modeling Cholera’s Transmission Patterns under the mentorship of Dr. Elsa Schaefer, chair of Marymount’s Mathematics Department, and Dr. David Gammack, assistant professor of Mathematics.
Dr. Schaefer’s research area is mathematical epidemiology, and throughout her 15 years at Marymount she has consistently involved talented undergraduate students in her disease modeling studies. Dr. Schaefer explains how the collaborative approach works: “The Biology students involved with our projects take leading roles in researching the current understanding of cholera dynamics, such as the length of immunity, efficacy of vaccinations, and proportion of asymptomatic cases, while the Math students take the lead on mathematical model development and computational analysis. Often, both ‘types’ of students surprise me with their expertise on the other side of the problem!”
Dr. Schaefer adds, “This is ongoing research and, of course, students graduate and leave our project. But then new students come along and begin to build on the work of their predecessors. And, since the particular problem we are focusing on within cholera study varies from year to year, the work always remains fresh and exciting.”
Hannah Korbach explains how she and Stacey Cole teamed up: “I began working with Dr. Schaefer in the summer of 2009, using an equation based mathematical model to study the spread of cholera. When we changed a variable in our research methodology to allow for random variations (like those that occur in real life), Dr. Schaefer suggested that we add Stacey, a biologist, to the team.”
Hannah continues, “Together with other MU students, we wrote the code for NetLogo, a software program that modeled the daily routines of the village we used for our research. Our next steps are to work with Drs. Schaefer and Gammack to conduct analysis on the code data we gathered and submit an article for publication.”
One great advantage to the multidisciplinary research approach is that it reflects real-world practice. Trial-and-error investigations are expensive, so today’s think tanks and research-and-development centers tend to be large organizations that can afford to assign multifunctional teams work on solutions.
This same model was employed by 14 Marymount Business, Graphic Design, and Marketing students who pooled their energies to create their own small business, Maasai Made: The Kenya Project.
In their presentation, the students explained how they took a complex idea from concept to fruition. Jonah LeKiliara, an MU graduate student, is a member of the Lturoto Maasai, a very poor nomadic tribe in Kenya. Two years ago, he initiated a conversation with James Ryerson, dean of Marymount’s School of Business Administration, about developing a sustainable business that would generate income for his tribe.
Dean Ryerson and other faculty members engaged a diverse group of students to explore options and flesh-out the business model that was ultimately selected. Business majors researched products and identified a viable one – hand-made craft items with the unique beading for which the Maasai are known. They also explored production methods, the availability of inventory, and target markets. Marketing and Graphic Design students collaborated to brand the initiative, developing a marketing plan complete with logo and collateral materials, including a website and Facebook page to promote the product and advertise sales events.
At the Student Research Conference, the entrepreneur/researchers reported that the business was showing a modest profit; they credited its success to the project-management model and the people involved in developing and executing the plan.
Such immediate gratification in research is the rare exception. Most projects extend over a long period of time and are never really “finished.” Ongoing research entails continual re-examination of results and adjustment of variables in the quest for enlightenment and improvement.
That is the model followed by the University’s Physical Therapy Department. All graduate study includes a research component, but for students in Marymount’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, inquiry learning and evidence-based practice are central.
MU’s Physical Therapy faculty present their first-year graduate students with a choice of thesis topics, and the students work on their projects in teams during the next two years. Often, the suggested topics reflect faculty interests and involve building on previous research efforts, with slight variations to add to the body of evidence-based knowledge.
This was demonstrated in a conference presentation titled Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy in a Child with Cerebral Palsy: A Case Report. Under the mentorship of Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Dr. Julie Ries, student researchers investigated the implementation of intensive constraint-induced movement therapy on a three-year-old with cerebral palsy, to facilitate increased use of his weaker arm. Constraining his good arm forced the child to rely on the weaker one in a series of play exercises.
The actual intervention lasted for only two weeks. However, the related research and planning took four graduate students more than a year. The researchers reported that their subject’s mobility was measured before, during, and after the intervention, and the quantitative data did reflect increased mobility in the weaker arm.
Pamela Jennings, D.P.T. ’11, puts the project’s results in a larger context: “Variations on this research had been done previously, with two other subjects. Each time, the goal was the same, but different techniques were used, depending on the age of the subject and his or her level of mobility. Taken together, the results of these experiments begin to suggest something meaningful.”
She says, “I think we have added to the body of evidence in this area. Previous researchers had studied a 12-month-old and a two-year-old, and we worked with a three-year-old. All of the results seem to confirm that constraint-induced movement therapy does lead to improvement in weaker extremities; still, further study is needed. The results also suggest that improvement is not age dependent. A good topic for future MU student researchers will be to further explore whether age is a determinant in the success of this kind of therapy. It’s something to think about.”
“Something to think about” pretty much sums it up. The phrase epitomizes what Dr. Liane Summerfield calls the “questioning spirit” that is at the heart of inquiry learning.
At Marymount University, that spirit is being nurtured; the spark of intellectual curiosity is being actively fanned into a flame that sheds light on interesting and important questions. From freshman classes where students learn to formulate good questions and devise methods of exploring the answers to the detailed evidence-based research being conducted at the graduate level, Marymount students are confirming John Dewey’s observation, shaking up an apparently stable world to see what the future holds.