Research, not beach, for summer Projects are becoming more popular for undergraduates.

Posted: July 14, 2009

At Ursinus College this summer, Kelly Ann Beck of Hatboro is trolling through records from Georgia's correctional system to determine whether unattractive criminals get harsher sentences.

For her project on the college's religious history, Karen Boedecker of Tiburon, Calif., is holed up in "Ursinusiana" - a room in the library dedicated to Ursinus memorabilia, including a catalog from its first academic year, 1869.

Roger Lee of Philadelphia has the black-box theater all to himself to create a performance contrasting the work of a modern dance choreographer and a sculptor. He may paint the floor of the experimental space - he's trying swirls of magenta and blue - provided he re-paints it black when he's done.

Beck, Boedecker, and Lee, all seniors, are among 71 Ursinus students conducting eight-week research projects in a variety of subjects under the close tutelage of professors. They get free room at the Collegeville, Montgomery County, campus, a $2,500 stipend, and a research budget of up to $250.

Nationwide, undergraduate research has become an increasingly popular summer pursuit over the last 20 years, as more schools provide financial incentives to students and allow them to explore more than just the sciences.

"It's teaching them about the life of a researcher," said Greg Weight, coordinator of student fellowships and scholarships at Ursinus, which began its program in 1992. "They also do some really good work."

Last summer, one student developed computer software, since copyrighted, to catch phrases commonly used by child predators on the Internet. Several other students are pursuing the same subject this summer, hoping eventually to release free software that parents can download. The work last month was chosen for a National Science Foundation grant.

At the University of Delaware, 182 "summer scholars" are doing research and collecting $3,000 each; at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., there are 39, who get $2,500 stipends plus housing.

Topics are far-flung through the arts and sciences and dictated largely by student interest.

The 75 summer researchers at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, which pays $3,200, are delving into subjects as diverse as the ethics of needle-exchange programs and the relationship between socioeconomic status and sleep patterns in children.

At Haverford College, students are observing and filming on the 216-acre campus for a project on "mobbing" - smaller prey animals such as crows or songbirds harassing and attacking a larger predator such as a red-tailed hawk.

At Arcadia University in Glenside, an English major is verifying and supplementing the research done by an author of a young-adult historical novel set in Bucks County and Philadelphia during the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Like many schools, Ursinus does not require students doing research to choose subjects within their majors, nor does it give academic credit. But that has not been a deterrent. This year, more than 90 applications were submitted, requiring project descriptions and student qualifications as well as recommendation letters.

When Ursinus' program began 17 years ago, it was funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit medical research foundation in Chevy Chase, Md. Shortly after the grant expired in 1996, the program was expanded beyond the sciences. The college now covers its $500,000 budget.

"It has proven far more popular" than anyone imagined, said Ursinus president John Strassburger. "It has created a terrific sense of community among some of our stronger, more academically oriented students."

At the library one morning, Boedecker spread her arms wide and declared, "This is where the magic happens." The crowded space held filing cabinets, old newspapers, faculty minutes, course catalogs, even Civil War swords.

Her curiosity about Ursinus' religious past was aroused when she noticed that the school had no bell or old fancy buildings. The reason, she was told, was that Ursinus was "low church," more "bare bones" and less ritualistic.

Finding that the college in 1968 stopped requiring students to attend chapel, she decided to examine the effect on the campus' feeling of community.

The resulting "void," she said, has been taken up somewhat by the Common Intellectual Experience, a course all freshmen must take.

"Some real implications for the school might come" out of the project, said her professor, Nathan Rein.

The same morning at the black-box theater - a simple, dark performance space - Lee was alone, working on his set. His was an eclectic collection of props: lighted reindeer from a thrift store, a space-age-style silver tablecloth from his 21st birthday party, and a pasta strainer that he had taped to a floor lamp.

The project - for which he is designing dances and writing a 30-page paper - "has definitely taught me to go deeper," he said.

In a nearby building, Beck and her professor Jennifer VanGilder sat at a computer screen with a mug shot of convicted murderer Clay Barrett. They calculated his face's symmetry - the way science measures attractiveness. He was a 99.62, nearly perfect.

They both laughed, having found him anything but hot.

"That picture is a perfect illustration to show the difference in what people value as good looks," VanGilder said.

The average person scores in the upper 80s to low 90s. The "Elephant Man" was a 74.

Beck and VanGilder also take into account scars and tattoos, eye and hair color, race, and gender as they study the pictures and files of 219 inmates. They expect to have preliminary results next week, when Beck and the other Ursinus students are to present their findings.

Beck spends six hours a week with VanGilder and many more hours researching independently. She's so absorbed, she talks incessantly to family and friends about it.

But "that's what makes research fun," VanGilder said. "You don't want to become a hermit and do it."

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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