Throughout the spring semester, students in Mary Bravo’s Experimental Psychology Lab conducted a series of well-known experiments, trying to determine the validity of these benchmarks studies. Assembled into 12 groups, the students were met with mixed results, as they replicated or disavowed the respective conclusions.
However, on a more personal level, the students would gain invaluable experiences and insight across the board, as each group featured an engaging and rewarding collaboration of Rutgers University–Camden students and a student attending LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden.
The Civic Engagement component – the first time that it has been included in the course – added an enjoyable but critical focus on working collectively and cohesively as a group, explains Bravo, an associate professor of psychology and a Civic Engagement Faculty Fellow at Rutgers–Camden.
“We’re emphasizing building collaboration skills, which are very important when you get out into the real world,” she says. “Research also shows that when you explain something to someone else, it is the best way to show that you understand it yourself.”
As Bravo explains, all students were required to attend the full labs, and to communicate and conduct their entire research together in person. They weren’t even allowed to correspond via e-mail, ensuring that everyone would be on the same page. “I wanted it all to happen here,” she says. “I especially didn’t want the high school students to be left out of the loop.”
Bravo’s advice to the groups was to keep the discussions professional and on point. She maintains that, by working together, students are naturally more invested in the project and their studies, and more connected to one another. Just as importantly, she adds, students are happier. “When you talk to the groups, the experiences speak for themselves,” she says.
A testament to this collaborative approach, LEAP students acknowledged being treated as peers, and not as underlings, by their Rutgers–Camden counterparts. “They made me feel like I was a college student and an equal part of the project, and didn’t just leave me out because I was in high school,” says Sonjanit DeFrank, a junior LEAP student who conducted the experiment “Romantic Red,” with Rutgers–Camden psychology majors Catherine Adams, Rebecca Davis, and Joshua Piccoli. The group successfully replicated an experiment which found that men’s perceptions of women were influenced by a red border around a photograph, but that women’s perceptions were unchanged.
DeFrank’s LEAP classmate, Janie Jones-Waddell, echoed the sentiment, noting that her group members consistently kept her engaged in the project, even when it seemed more complex than what she had been accustomed to on the high-school level. “They didn’t leave me out; they kept bringing me in,” says the junior, who collaborated with Rutgers–Camden psychology majors Gabrielle Aslanian, Rui Cabido, and Kara Pyne on a project titled “Short-Term Auditory Adaptation.” The group tested their own theory to determine if ear buds had a greater impact than headphones on short-term auditory adaptation, also known as listening fatigue. Contrary to their hypothesis, they found that headphones actually caused greater short-term auditory adaptation than ear buds.
Over the course of the projects, the Rutgers–Camden students served a mentoring or leadership role when needed. Sometimes that meant taking a little extra time to explain the research process or to brush up on additional vocabulary words, says Aslanian. In other instances, it involved dispensing helpful advice, such as explaining the work ethic needed to succeed on the collegiate level and the importance of taking advantage of educational opportunities. “Personally, I tried to teach Janie that college is extremely tough but that you always have to stay positive,” says Aslanian.
By serving as mentors, it actually made Rutgers–Camden students more cognizant of their own work ethic and focus, notes Pyne. “Being a mentor, you have to be on your Ps & Qs at all times,” she says. “I was helping to guide her on the right path not only as a student, but as a person. It was really a fascinating and enjoyable experience.”
Cabido affirms that the experience will better prepare Rutgers–Camden students to serve in these roles long after they have graduated. “I am personally going into the research field,” he says. “While I probably won’t be working with high school students, I will know how to apply what I’ve learned in future situations.”
The experience would leave a lasting impression on the LEAP students as well. “They taught me that I need to be committed,” says Jones-Waddell, who has been attending LEAP since second grade. “I also learned that making friends and teamwork is extremely important. Without it, you don’t get anything accomplished.”
In spite of the added assistance, the Rutgers–Camden students acknowledged how well-prepared the LEAP students were to embrace their academic challenges. As Davis recalls, this was her first course involving civic engagement and believed that DeFrank “was going to do her homework and we would do ours.” On the contrary, she says, DeFrank was determined to make a valuable contribution to the group.
“She wasn’t content with just sitting back and letting us tell her the results,” says Davis. “She wanted to run the experiment and present it to the class, so that’s exactly what she did. There was no reason she couldn’t do anything that we did.”
DeFrank maintains that, only by becoming a fully vested member of the team, she learned that she could succeed on the collegiate level, a realization which will continue to pay dividends down the line. “It really opened my mind to what I can accomplish,” says DeFrank, who likewise has been attending LEAP since second grade. “It means a lot to know that not only can I succeed on the high-school level, but move on to a higher level of education. I know that I shouldn’t be afraid because I have been prepared for these experiences.”