In the world of research things aren’t always what they seem, or are supposed to be. Psychology students at Washington State University learned that last spring while working together, interpreting data, and writing up results. At an undergraduate research symposium in April, a dozen student presenters used large poster boards to explain their semester-long projects. Seven of the 12 received small research grants.
The purpose of the one-day symposium was to “encourage hands-on, face-to-face learning though collaborative research between psychology majors and faculty mentors,” says coordinator Samantha Swindell, who oversees undergraduate instruction in psychology at WSU.
The projects were varied. Some used animals in fundamental research. In others, human subjects provided insight into a variety of psychological questions. How people, for example, use different kinds of information to estimate the probability of certain life events, like an automobile accident. How students can decrease test anxiety through various types of services at WSU. How impulsivity affects reasoning and decision making.
“I didn’t always get the results I was looking for, but was able to discover something new . . . something I didn’t know before,” says Elizabeth Matthaei. “You aren’t out to prove you are right, but to gain more knowledge.”
The junior from Auburn used lab rats in her study to determine the difference in how females and males tolerate chronic pain caused by inflammation.
“This is an incredible opportunity for students to do their own research and understand how science moves forward,” says psychology professor Frances McSweeney. For some students it’s a way to discover for themselves, ‘Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?’ “
Senior Jeremiah Brown examined how pre-exposure to a reinforcer (food) affects the ability of subjects (pigeons, in this case) to maintain a voluntary behavior. His experience at WSU taught him a great deal about experimental design and the scientific method, he says. “Analyzing things is a key component-letting the data talk to you, trying to figure what it is saying, rather than trying to fit your theory to the data. I’ve learned how to be a scientist.”
Symposium speaker and WSU alumnus Robert H. Horner (’75 M.S. Psych.) stressed the value of good research and how it has helped him during a 25-year career in teaching and consulting. He is professor of special education and director of educational and community support at the University of Oregon.
Research in such areas as principles of behavior, intervention strategies, assessments, reinforcers, and discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate behavior can provide teachers, counselors, and psychologists with important tools for working with school children.
Typically 15 percent of school children today are at risk, and 5 percent demonstrate problem behavior, Horner said.
However, “if you think you are going to change one kid at a time and provide a lasting solution, think again,” he warned. “There are more of them than there are of us.”
Instead, he recommended a behavioral analysis for a whole school as a way to provide a safer environment where students can build social competence and achieve academically.
He cited the case of a middle school which reduced the number of office referrals by 890 over a year’s time. That saved 9,625 minutes-the equivalent of 160 hours, or 20 eight-hour workdays-devoted to dealing with inappropriate student behavior.
He encouraged WSU graduates going into education to build intervention strategies that are sustained across time-for at least four to six years.
On his return to Pullman, Horner saluted his mentor and award-winning psychology professor Thomas Brigham.
“We learned to do science and do it well. We learned integrity from him,” he said of Brigham, who still teaches. “I expect you to use well what you learn here.”