Inquiring Minds: Undergraduate Research at PSU

June, 2004

by Sabrina Blanco ’04

Health, Physical Education and Recreation

Terri Crawford ’04 checks the motion-sensitive camera keeping watch over her forensic anthropology project.

Terri Crawford ’04 checks the motion-sensitive camera keeping watch over her forensic anthropology project.

“It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” says Keagan Heavey, a senior who joined other Plymouth State University students to present research at the international Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) conference in Australia. “The group worked on this project for a year and a half prior to presenting our results at the University of Melbourne.”

Students Laurie Murphy, Karina Pipes, Kathy Berei and Heavey explain how student athletes construct meaning through coaches’ directions. The team was advised by Associate Professor Joy Butler of the health, physical education and recreation department, also a keynote speaker at the conference.

Heavey says, “Our research was based on athletes’ decision making. We wanted to know how they make decisions during game-play.” The team tested their thesis by observing softball teams at the elementary, high school and university level.

“We examined our results through video, after-play interviews and by recording student narratives. Our results suggest that with age comes ability. As we develop, so does our ability to make better decisions.” Murphy says, “High school students had the most articulate answers.”

Murphy continues, “We were among 250 people from 19 different countries at the conference and we were the only undergraduates there.”

“There were about 40 people in attendance at our presentation. The attendees came from all over the world—from places like Singapore, Salem, Mass., New Zealand and France,” agrees Heavey. “After our presentation, many of the audience members congratulated us and treated us like professionals, rather than undergraduates. They were impressed with the nature of our data and the extent of our research.”

Undergraduate research opportunities are something that sets Plymouth State University apart from other colleges and universities. Dr. Virginia Barry, provost and vice president for academic affairs, talks about its benefits, whether a student plans to attend graduate school or go into the workforce. “I consider student research to be any internship, practicum, independent research—anything that theoretically requires a student to put their knowledge into real life application,” says Barry. Students and faculty have a chance to learn from each other with hands-on projects they find helpful because, “you start to see the things that you’ve learned in class and you begin to think about them and apply them to what you’re doing.”

PSU students participate in experiential projects by conducting their own group research and experiments—many of them visiting universities outside of New Hampshire—and by presenting that research at academic conferences.


Three undergraduate students: Nathan McCarthy, James Mazzuchelli and Cristen Morressy presented their research at an American Criminal Justice Conference in Boston. The group shared information from a longitudinal study, Police and Community Issues, discussing the complementary nature of the public criminal justice system.

McCarthy says, “We analyzed data comparing the arrest and recidivism rates of students who have passed through our campus judicial system and the town’s court. We wanted to see which had the lower recidivism rate.” Using court records, school records and arrest rates, the students calculated that there was no difference in the recidivism rates between the two systems. “Both are working at the same level and have the same impact on offenders,” says McCarthy.

Professor Emeritus of Business David Kent, who directs PSU’s criminal justice program, says, “Students tried to discern which agency had a higher recidivism rate—the rate of people who re-offend in any court cases involving alcohol use. Students had preconceived notions about the results, but they later disproved those notions.” The group learned how agencies could modify existing policies after discovering that their long-held beliefs were not supported by data.


Health and human service professionals from around the country gathered at the University of New Hampshire in August 2003, where students Emily Denby, Diane Leuschner, Heather Scott, Amy York and Meghann Hogan, of the Social Work Club, presented their research for the National Institute on Social Work and Human Services. The institute focuses on the importance of identifying needs and meeting challenges to foster innovative practice in rural communities.

According to Professor of Social Work Scott Meyer, student social work organizations are important in rural programs, but often face some unique challenges. The students’ project, “Fostering Effective Student Social Work Clubs in Rural Programs,” examines strategies for instituting a social work club that provides effective educational outcomes for its members.

York says, “We did tons of research to prepare for the conference. We looked at a number of different social work clubs to learn how they started their program and what activities they did.” The group determined that social work clubs are challenged to have better contact with alumni, involvement with social work professionals and the need to recruit more members.

“In rural areas there tends to be a lack of easy connectedness with social work professionals,” says Meyer. “To make recommendations, the students generated ideas after looking at campus groups who had the best levels of student participation.” They addressed strategies for improvement: collaborating with other campus departments and student organizations, developing a plan for member recruitment and planning activities that heighten student learning about social needs.

“This project gave them a sense of capability as entry level professionals,” Meyer says. “They learned how to integrate brief research into a presentation that has many components. I am supportive of this endeavor and I would encourage faculty to organize more projects like this one.”


Senior Terri Crawford (an anthropology major) started her internship with New Hampshire State Medical Examiner Jennie Duval in spring 2004. “I want to become a forensic anthropologist,” says Crawford. “I’m not required to complete an internship for my major, but I felt that a project like this would prepare me for graduate school.”

The internship entails close work with the medical examiner, often witnessing actual autopsies at Concord Hospital. “For Terri, this is a very critical step in her education,” says Assistant Professor of Social Science David Starbuck, an anthropologist. “She needs to be able to witness autopsies and learn from them without feeling the aversion to death that really is very natural for all of us. The fact that she is able to do this as sort of the critical ‘first step’ toward developing a career in forensic anthropology is important.”

Crawford started another project this year, when she purchased a 125-pound pig and placed it above ground at a local site, to record data on the cadaver’s decomposition process.

“I chose to use a pig because the organs are very similar to those in a human. The study will help me identify the signs of aging and the stages involved in decomposition.”

“The experiment is similar to the famous ‘Body Farm’ at the University of Tennessee. Terri’s experiment may help to establish whether pigs and humans really do decompose the same way,” says Starbuck.


In January, the meteorology department hosted a trip to the American Meteorological Society (AMS) annual meeting in Seattle, Wash., where more than 2,000 of the world’s leading atmospheric scientists gathered to discuss a broad range of weather and climate-related issues. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe was a keynote speaker for the event, discussing NASA’s contributions to climate and weather research.

Students Rebecca Chan and Michael Nahmias presented their meteorology research, while other students attended sessions like “Data Assimilation and Observational Network Design” or “Global Meteorological and Hydrological Services.” Andrew Bennett (2003 AMS/Industry Scholarship winner), Craig Campbell, Brandon Doig, Jeffrey Edry, Jessica Eldridge, Elizabeth Fouts, Holly-Lyn Makuch, Andrew Wilkins, Scott Maxwell and Molly Montgomery attended the January conference.


These projects are just a few of the research opportunities available to PSU students. “The student who does research will go through the process of scientific inquiry,” says Barry. “As they develop hypotheses and generate ideas, they actually do the research. And they have their professors there to support them.”

Sabrina Blanco is a senior communication major at PSU with minors in anthropology/sociology and expository writing. She serves as publicity intern in the PSU public relations office, assistant residence director for Belknap Hall and undergraduate fellow for the PASS office, as well as participating in numerous campus and community groups.

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