Under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Psychology Daniela Martin, two Penn State Brandywine students traveled to the Big Apple for an experience unlike any they could find in a classroom.
On March 6, Martin escorted senior Ryan Smith and junior Sauda Anima, who transferred to University Park this semester, to the Eastern Psychological Association Convention in Brooklyn, N.Y. to present research to their peers and professionals in the discipline of psychology.
The purpose of the trip was for the three to share their findings from a study assessing the effects of diversity and multicultural programming on undergraduate students. Their project, "The Role of Intergroup Competence in Educational Settings," was compiled through a collection of data on the Brandywine campus focusing on links among intergroup contact, cognitions and affective states achieved through intercultural contact, and academic outcomes.
During their research, "We explored the comfort level people have with those from different backgrounds, diversity of peer networks and how these experiences are connected to academic outcomes," Martin said.
The results showed that, among other things, "students on average moderately agree with the importance of diversity in their education," according to the written preliminary findings, but still feel most comfortable among peers of the same ethnic or racial group. However, the less obvious benefits of exposure to other groups may lie in the increased intellectual engagement and critical thinking that was found among students participating in more diverse social networks.
Anima took part in the study as part of an independent study with Martin. Smith, who is collaborating with Martin to fulfill his Lifespan Development Option, a new research requirement for human development and family studies majors, joined the two at the conference simply for the learning experience, though he is now also assisting in Martin's ongoing research on the effects of multicultural educational initiatives.
The larger project, conducted in collaboration with Dr. David Livert of Penn State Lehigh Valley, examines study abroad, diversity in education and the multicultural aspects of education.
"We are looking at international courses on campus, study abroad and short study abroad," Martin said, in reference to the weeklong international programs available to students each semester. "Basically, we're looking at whether these courses, by raising knowledge of other cultures, have an impact educationally. There are connections to critical thinking, global competence, and we found that these skills may translate into higher grade point averages and self-reported academic skills."
Taken together, the research makes a case for including diversity interventions in education, not simply because they may change how students think of race and culture, but because they may change how students think and learn more generally.
"For me, it's great because the students are helping out with my research," Martin said. "What is more wonderful, though, is the contribution my students make to this project, by bringing their ideas and perspectives. This research is about students and they should have their voice in it. And they are learning a lot."
The convention featured important professionals in the field of psychology and provided a chance for the two students to get a glimpse of the professional world in which they hope to someday thrive. "They interacted with other students and the experience was really about professional socialization," Martin said. "[Smith and Anima] looked great and carried themselves really well."
The students were among hundreds of professionals presenting their work at the conference, which Martin stressed was a national event featuring a good mix of students and professionals.
"This is really not a student conference, it's national. It's one of the biggest conferences next to the American Psychological Association [conference]," she said. "I wanted to bring them so they could be exposed."
Both Smith and Anima were able to participate in their respective studies and travel to the conference because Martin submitted a proposal for funds to the Office of Academic Affairs, resulting in financial support from an undergraduate research fund.
At the conference "they learned how to present themselves, how to communicate with colleagues. It's an experience they won't get in the classroom," Martin said. "I'm really glad there is support for this kind of activity on campus. It's really fantastic. A lot of schools don't pay for students to go to conferences."
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