Skip to main content

Students enhance undergraduate experience with research

April 4, 2007

By Niki Fritz and Ariane Strombom

By their senior year, about 13 percent of all UW–Madison undergraduates have poked, probed and prodded through data, experiments and more data as they researched “hard-science” topics. Countless more liberal arts students have participated in similar research, called scholarship, investigating the social sciences. These students’ research not only provides students with a valuable learning opportunity but also gives them a taste of the real world and the chance to make important connections with faculty and researchers.

Aaron Brower, vice provost for teaching and learning, says undergraduate research is an important part of the “Wisconsin Experience.”

“Quite frankly, for students to take advantage of the unique ‘Wisconsin Experience’ they should become involved in the university’s research and scholarship enterprise, all across the disciplines of the campus,” Brower says. “[Research and scholarship] forces students to enter the world of ‘ideas that matter,’ where students engage others who are thinking deeply and productively about themselves and the world we live in. It brings students into an international community of scholars and researchers and therefore they are treated as serious colleagues.”

On Thursday, April 12, from 9:45 a.m.-4 p.m., more than 200 undergraduate researchers from disciplines across campus will present their “ideas that matter” to the community at the ninth annual Undergraduate Symposium. The event in located in the Memorial Union and is open to the public. The eight student projects highlighted below show diversity of research and scholarship displayed at UW–Madison and the Undergraduate Symposium.

BioCore Ambassadors Provide Science Education Outreach in Madison: Kate Dielentheis, Caitlin Iverson, Maggie Melchior and Joel Miesfeld

Since 2004, a group of biology students called the Biocore Outreach Ambassadors have been working to bring the lessons of their laboratories to the Wisconsin Heights School District, a small rural community 23 miles west of Madison. The Biocore Outreach Ambassador program, which started with the help of a Wisconsin Idea fellowship, aims to spread science to children, their families and the community through one-on-one tutoring, weekly experiments in classes, after school science clubs, and family science events.

“Many elementary teachers don’t have a specific science background, so even though they are excellent teachers, science curriculum can be tricky. Also, because of the heavy emphasis on math and reading throughout the elementary years, science can easily be pushed aside,” says Maggie Melchior, a BioCore Ambassador. “To combat these challenges, we designed a team-teaching program working with the students and teachers at Black Earth and Mazomanie elementaries.”

The team-teaching science program pairs each ambassador with a teacher. Throughout the year, the ambassadors visit the class once a week and introduce new science ideas and activities that are integrated into the teacher’s lesson plans. During the past year, students have dissected a pig heart, made ice cream, measured their own heart rates from EKG signals, built gumdrop domes and grown their own bacteria.

Biocompatibility and Polymer Wear Of Ti-Hf Alloys and DLC Coatings for Orthopedic Applications: Stephanie Kuhn

Every year 300,000 Americans have total hip replacement surgery. Unfortunately, 10-20 years later, many patients are back on the operating table because their hip replacements have worn out. Student Stephanie Kuhn is looking to prevent an expensive and painful second surgery by researching a better alloy to use in hip replacements.

The new alloy, called Ti-Hf, is made of titanium, a metal easily accepted by human bodies, and hafnium, a metal known for its durability. The combination of a biocompatible metal with a high strength metal means the hip replacement may not be rejected by the body and may also last longer improving the patient’s quality of life.

“I believe that a Ti-Hf alloy could potentially minimize the need for, or eliminate, secondary surgical procedures and relieving the patient from additional physical, economical and emotional stress,” Kuhn says.

Why is Obesity in the Black Community So High?: LaSeanza Flowers

America’s struggle with the obesity epidemic has been written across the headlines in recent years; however, the African American community’s struggle with the disease has not been highly researched. After losing an aunt to obesity, LaSeanza Flowers wanted to research how obesity is uniquely affecting her community and what can be done to stop the epidemic.

“My aunt, who was obese, died at the young age of 23. Also, I have always been heavier than the kids my age but I hadn’t thought about my weight affecting my ability to live, until her death,” says Flowers. “Because of these personal experiences, it has become very important for me to find a remedy for this epidemic, which is killing many in my community.”

Flowers’ research found one of the main causes of obesity in the African American community was having an income under $10,000. Low-income families were unable to buy more expensive healthy food. Also, the neighborhoods in which low-income families live do not encourage physical activity especially for children.

In the future, Flowers wants the government to take a more active role in creating a safe and clean space for low-income African-American children to play as well as encouraging the community to be more physically active.

Women of the Scarred Earth: Rising Tide Hip Hop Theater and Social Movements: Hannah Tien Buck, Katrina Flores and Nicole Soulier

The all-female members of the performance group Women of the Scarred Earth use hip-hop, dance and spoken-word performances to reveal the untold stories of history to high school students across Wisconsin.

“Our goal is to provide students with a better understanding to the dub-history or B-side of history that doesn’t always get told by our ancestors and within our communities,” explains Nicole Soulier, a member of the group. “We touch on issues of social and environmental injustices. We hope to provide [students] with the inspiration to express themselves in a positive way and to also search for their own histories of their families and their communities.”

Women of the Scarred Earth is made up of seven students from varying disciplines. The group has performed at four high schools and one community center during the past year and hopes to perform at more high schools across the state this spring.

Cuidándome, Los Cuido Mejor: Rebecca Paradiso

A bilingual pilot program, “Cuidándome, Los Cuido Mejor (Caring for Me, I Care for Them Better),” aims to provide health information to Latina mothers of children with developmental disabilities. The goal is to improve health behaviors and to understand the successes of related interventions.

“I really wanted to engage in an interactive project that would allow me to work closely with the Latino community and to increase my cultural competency in the process,” says Rebecca Paradiso, a student majoring in social work and Spanish.

Paradiso used the promotora (community health promoter) model to administer the intervention, working with community members fluent in the culture and language of the study participants to spread the intended message.

Working with professor Sandy Magaña, who has done previous research in this area, Paradiso communicated with local and national experts in Latino health care and social services and reviewed academic literature pertinent to Latina health and well-being.

Sexuality Education in American Public Schools: (Re) Thinking Gender, Disease and Morality: Rachel Brooks, Carleen Ebert and Shauna Weiskotten

Through a case study of sex education programs in California, Florida, Maryland, Wisconsin and Wyoming, the students applied an ethnographic perspective, including participant observation, focus group discussions, interviews and document reviews. The goal is to understand the relationship between federal policies and sex education curricula and the information retained by students, teachers and parents.

“I have done medical research before and wanted to see how social research was similar and in what ways it was different,” says Carleen Ebert, a student majoring in biology. “We will be starting analysis soon, and it has been interesting to find themes in the data despite the various types of sexuality education curriculum being taught.”

The researchers conclude that federal and state laws significantly shape sex education possibilities at the school level, and although 85 percent of parents approve of comprehensive sex education, abstinence-only programs are less problematic to school districts because of superior organization of advocating institutions.

“I think we have a major issue on our hands, and I hope that this research will provide some of the information and some of the impetus needed to get a real dialogue going,” says mentor Nancy Kendall of the educational policy studies department.

Muir Woods Mentors: Mary Blitzer, Amy Blitzer, Jacob Cychosz and David Francis

This program reaches children of diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds through an after school program to encourage environmental stewardship.

With the guidance of mentor and interdisciplinary studies lecturer Margaret Nellis, students meet with fourth- and fifth-graders from Lincoln Elementary School every other Friday and take the children on field trips to different natural areas around campus and science-oriented facilities.

“By doing this project, we hope to share and inspire an appreciation of nature and to give the children an opportunity to see and learn about places they might not otherwise have the chance to observe,” says student Mary Blitzer.

Another main goal of the project is to introduce elementary students to science and the possibility of higher education at an earlier age through their relationships with their college-age mentors.

Children of Incarcerated Parents: Reasons for Termination of Mentoring Relationships: Kirby Burkett and Ashley Hanneman

In collaboration with investigators at the Waisman Center, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Dane County and the Madison-area Urban Ministry, this project seeks to examine why mentorship relationships with children of incarcerated parents are terminated at a high rate. Previous research has shown early termination of mentoring relationships may adversely affect the children involved.

Through the project analysis, the contributing factors to early match termination will be examined, as well as how those factors may be prevented in future programs, allowing a greater understanding of the effectiveness of mentoring high-risk populations.

“It is our hope that by recognizing the main contributing factors associated with early match termination, this study will spark discussion or further research that will look to find ways in which families and children of the incarcerated are effectively supported — whether through mentoring or other supportive programs,” says Ashley Hanneman, one of the students who worked on the project.

The students were mentored by Rebecca Shlafer of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and Julie Poehlmann in the School of Human Ecology.