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When thinking about research, the common adage "publish or perish" comes to mind. But for most professors at Baltimore-area colleges and universities, research means more than that.

For many, it's a passion. For some, it means introducing their students to research. For all, it means asking questions.

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"Research is an essential piece of a 21st century educational package," says Laura Cripps, associate professor of anthropology and chair of social cultural science at Howard Community College (HCC).

Cripps enthuses about research. "If you are not actively researching – you are not asking questions, not moving forward, staying stagnant. Research creates something new, which adds to dialogue," she says.

Her goal is to bring undergraduates "an applied experience. Students really get engaged in their education when they see a point to it," says Cripps. "I am really happy, even at the community college level, that this college [HCC] has been so receptive at my attempt to bring research to undergraduates."

The website showcases HCC undergraduate research in anthropology. Some projects, like the excavation at Shaw Folly, utilize magnetometry, which Cripps describes as similar to "a highly sensitive metal detector." HCC is as one of the only community colleges to own such equipment, according to Cripps.

Beyond technology, her research projects can benefit from serendipity. That's the case with a student-generated showcase of American Indian stone technologies, now on display to the public at HCC. This exhibit presents newly researched artifacts from across the Americas. The collection spans 10,000 years, with some items from as early as 800 BCE.

For this exhibit to come to fruition, good luck built on hard work. Upon seeing media coverage on another of Cripps projects (a student-led public archaeological excavation at Robinson Nature Center), a local family stepped forward to loan the college its family collection of American Indian artifacts. To honor them, the college names it the Samuel Janness Prescott and Herbert Prescott Hall Collection.

So that's how a private collection, assembled in 1920s, transformed into a teaching collection. Cripps asked her students to research the artifacts, which include more than 140 objects. "We set up a 'research lab', which is really more like a glorified broom closet, "says Cripps.

No matter, it worked. There, students researched arrowheads, spear points, knives, bowls and axes. They identified date range, region of use, and possible cultural affiliations. They catalogued. They wrote text for information boards to display at the public exhibit. Additionally, some helped create an educational package for 4th graders, complete with pre- and post visit activities.

"It's a huge honor to have such a wide range of American Indian material spanning 10,000 years available for undergraduate study and research. This collection will have an considerable impact on students interested in American history and cultural anthropology," says Cripps.

"This has been an amazing learning opportunity for our students. Applied learning opportunities such as this are incredibly rare for undergraduates – especially among community college students. The skills, knowledge and pleasure they have gained from this generous donation cannot be underestimated," she says.

Multi-institution research on linked question

It's one thing to conduct research, but quite another to join forces with 14 academic institutions across the country. Yet that's what University of Maryland at Baltimore County  (UMBC) embarks on for the Urban Water Innovation Network (UWIN). It's a consortium of academic institutions – with UMBC a main player – who are looking at challenges that threaten urban water systems. This five-year study on environmental sustainability promises to yield a national blueprint to better manage water resources.

Not only is such a multi-institution, multi-disciplinary research approach innovative, also it is hard won. Responding to a request for proposals from the National Science Foundation, close to 100 applicants vied in open competition for grant money. Ultimately, only three projects received funding. One of them is UWIN, which includes UMBC on the research team.

"We are thrilled," says lead researcher Claire Welty, UMBC professor of chemical, biochemical and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at UMBC. "It's a nice opportunity to play a part in a project of national scope. It's quite an honor."

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Welty says that UMBC's presence on the research team helped win the $12 million grant. "We have data and experience. We have published. We have produced a lot, and we have a lot going on," she says.

Admittedly, "UMBC has been doing research like this, but this is the single, biggest funding source," says Andrew Miller, professor in the department of geography and environmental systems. Proud to be a part of UWIN, he shares that it's akin to feeling like "a baseball player getting to be involved in a world series."

This network effort is not pure research, but instead tasks itself to develop solutions. "The idea is to create a network of scientists to help solve environmental problems," says Chris Swan, professor of the department of geography and environmental systems. Plus, "almost every group is training graduate and undergraduates to get involved. So the professional networking opportunities will be helpful to students."

In the end everyone benefits.

"It's a big interdisciplinary project with networks of people working together who combine a variety of expertise. One person is not going to solve these types of problems," says Miller. "We all will learn from each other and do things we couldn't do on our own."

Better ways to teach climate change

Interdisciplinary research of another kind gets underway this fall at the University of Maryland (UMD). Here, a cross-disciplinary team joins forces from its School of Journalism, School of Public Health, School of Education, and Department of Atmospheric Science. Their research involves a project called "ScienceBeat."

ScienceBeat is an effort to teach students about the real issues of climate change and to make them excited about learning science using interactive, mobile tools, according to UMD.

Funded by the University of Maryland Council on the Environment, a $105,000 seed grant launches ScienceBeat now as a pilot program. "We are inventing it here in Prince George 's County," says Ronald Yaros, associate professor of mobile multi-platform journalism. "Rolling it out nationally is our hope."

Admittedly, a complex subject like science is not always well communicated, says Yaros, who once worked as a television weatherman. Therefore, ScienceBeat creates an innovative, active-learning, educational partnership designed to increase understanding of climate, according to the website www.sciencebeat.org. In the pilot program, a partnership exists between University of Maryland and three Prince George's County high schools.

With ScienceBeat, "science, English and journalism teachers – and their students – talk to each other to learn how to communicate a complex topic in science. In this case, the topic is climate change," says Yaros. "The purpose is interdisciplinary collaboration between classrooms."

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This research looks at "a new curriculum, on a new topic, in a new way, with new tools," says Yaros. It seeks to understand ways "to package information" to better engage high school students – the next generation of digital learners.

ScienceBeat combines science, education and technology. The UMD researchers are working with high schools to develop and test innovative materials that can better engage their audience.

Interactive, mobile devices play a pivotal role. "We use the mobile devices to interact with students and to get feedback. We are not introducing a new technology to students. They already know it. We are saying, 'here's how to use it better,' " says Yaros.

Why call it ScienceBeat? 

"Traditionally in journalism, there are beats – a health beat, a crime beat. With ScienceBeat, students take on the role of reporter to research, investigate and interview each other," says Yaros. "It's kind of like a glorified student newspaper, with all the tools of the digital age."

Research-wise, "we want to know if this method [of active learning] is better than a textbook," says Yaros. "The question is 'do interactive modules enhance understanding of climate change in both science and English/journalism classes?' It helps us see what works best in a high school classroom." •

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