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Creating a Community of Students and Faculty

Creating a Community of Students and Faculty

Bass Connections team launches 12 projects on education and human development

December 11, 2013 |
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Martin Zelder

This fall, a visitor to SSRI-West found undergraduates from all over campus working on interdisciplinary projects with faculty and graduate students. These projects aim to tackle a variety of real-world problems, and the space and resources on the second floor of Gross Hall are a perfect fit for such collaborations.

These projects are made possible by Bass Connections, which is divided into five themes, each chosen to capitalize on existing faculty strengths. The undergraduate portion of Education and Human Development (EHD) is headed by Martin Zelder, who came to Duke last summer from Northwestern University, to work on the project. "I saw this as a thrilling challenge," says Zelder who was a highly recognized undergraduate teacher at Northwestern and has kept an active research agenda. "This was an exciting way to combine my teaching and research interests."

The EHD theme has 12 project teams, with titles including:

  • Difficult Early Childhoods and Educational Paths Toward Adulthood
  • Interventions to Increase Healthy Eating on College Campuses
  • Diversity in Schools
  • Education, Poverty, and Economic Inequality in Rural Appalachia
  • Coursera and the Future of Free Massive Open Online Courses

Most teams consist of two or three faculty members, a half-dozen undergraduates, and sometimes a graduate student or two. Each team might produce a policy paper, a website, a peer-reviewed article, an online course, or other products.

"My goal is for the students to have a meaningful intellectual experience to understand what it's like to work on a serious high-level research project and use that to shape their future going forward," Zelder says. "I want to train and nurture scholarly temperament. That doesn't mean they are going to go on and get Ph.D.'s -- it's the same temperament that will make them valuable in corporations or the non-profits,  or as physicians or lawyers. The pertinent skills that are called on these days are being able to work in teams on multidisciplinary projects where everybody's contributing at a highly responsible level."

On a campus where students routinely complete a major, a minor, and a certificate, Zelder is heading a program that provides opportunities for students to participate at varying levels. The most involved students, called "scholars," must complete significant work related to their team, meet with their project team weekly, and be enrolled in a two-semester class taught by Zelder. This year, there are 65 scholars in the EHD theme, including sophomores, juniors, and seniors from a wide variety of majors.

Other students, called "associates," attend a not-for-credit weekly evening event that includes talks related to education and human development given by experts on campus and from the wider community.

"There are hundreds of students who tutor in local schools, and we are hoping that weekly discussions will help to connect these students to each other, and to current researchers tackling questions about how we learn and how our brain develops," says Jim Speckart who has been instrumental in supporting the EHD Bass theme and is co-leading one of the project teams.

Eventually, Zelder and his team hope to build a self-sustaining community on campus with strengthened links to internal programs, external programs, and to new research ventures.

Associates may choose to enjoy the experience for what it is, or they may be inspired to apply to become scholars the following year. While the Tuesday night events are aimed at associates, they are open to anyone on campus and the general public as well. "We have a vibrant community where there's a lot of interest in thinking about what works and how to solve problems," Zelder says. "We want to be relevant to Durham."

Most of the EHD meetings -- Zelder's class, the project team meetings, the Tuesday evening events -- are held at SSRI-West, in Gross Hall. "We've seen synergy and connection with all of the students coming to these team meetings and my class at SSRI-West," Zelder says. "People are bumping into each other as one meeting is ending and another beginning." Indeed, Zelder's class dismisses just before the Tuesday evening event begins.

While the scholars are immersed in what Zelder calls a "high-level research type experience" and associates are exploring and learning about the possibilities without committing a lot of time, a third group of students, called "specialists," participate on the project teams on an ad hoc basis. Meanwhile, members of the larger Duke and Durham community may attend just one Tuesday night event and come away inspired.

"It's something you can dip into and get real benefit from, we hope," Zelder says. "We're trying to create a flexible product or service that more people can use. We want this to be a big community."

This article originally appeared in the fall issue of GIST, the newsletter of the Social Science Research Institute. Photo by BWPW Photography.

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