Learning By Doing

At WCU, undergraduate researchers are taking theory into practice


Michele Coker is on cloud nine – almost literally. The research the undergraduate is doing at Western Carolina University has taken her to an altitude of 98,000 feet. And now she aims to go higher.

A geology major with a minor in physics, Coker is conducting research that could be used to protect airline flight crews from lower atmospheric radiation, something scientists call “dark lightning.” So far, she has launched seven weather balloons from Jackson County Airport in research that she hopes will lead to a career with national space and weather agencies.

More so than at many universities, undergraduates in Cullowhee are involved in research, a reflection of WCU’s belief that “doing” is as important as listening and reading, university officials say. Nearly all WCU undergraduates are involved in some level of research or creative work, and it shows. Among 460 colleges and universities participating, WCU tied for second in the number of project abstracts accepted for presentation at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research held this spring. NCUR recognizes some of the best undergraduate research in the nation. WCU students had 70 project abstracts, placing the university among the top 10 schools at the conference for eight years running. For six of those years, WCU has been ranked in the top five.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on at WCU is the ability of our students to think analytically and critically and to express themselves well in written form,” said Carol Burton ’87 MAEd ’90, associate provost for undergraduate studies. “Undergraduate research allows them to hone and perfect those skills. It meets our expectations of student learning.”

Brian Railsback is dean of WCU’s Honors College, which hosts the Undergraduate Expo, an annual display of the research prowess of undergrads. “There is outstanding work from every academic college at WCU,” said Railsback, who noted that the project abstracts presented at the national undergraduate research conference represented a wide range of study, “from African-American studies to women and gender studies and almost everything in between.”

The literature about learning indicates that students retain material much better when they are engaged in it, Burton said. “When our undergraduates are doing research, they are actively engaged,” she said. “They are experiencing things that help them retain knowledge because they are applying it. They go from ‘knowledge’ to ‘comprehension’ to ‘synthesis,’ where they can create something new out of the sum of all the parts. And they move on to ‘evaluation,’ where they know something so well that they can hypothesize and test theories.”

Undergraduate research has become more important and prevalent as state and national leaders emphasize innovation, entrepreneurship and creative thinking, university officials say. It starts students on the right path for success as well, Railsback believes. “If you get involved in research early, you are learning how to bring new things and ideas to the table. For some students, that may lead to them creating their own businesses,” he said. “They learn how to pitch ideas and be a creative part of an enterprise.” Students who have conducted research at an undergraduate level are much more likely to get into graduate schools where research is required, he said.

Students can’t proceed without the support of faculty, and WCU is fortunate to have professors willing to help students in their research, Railsback said. Students often want to get started their freshman year with the hopes of continuing their work throughout their time on campus. Railsback sends them on to their respective department heads. “Every time I do that, I get feedback that the faculty is ready to help them,” he said. “You don’t get that at every university.” Faculty members have time at WCU because the university’s instructor-student ratio is better than at large research universities. Professors at those schools are teaching classes with hundreds of students in each, as well as advising graduate students and doctoral candidates, Railsback said. At WCU, they’re better able to attend to individual students, he said.

What are WCU students up to? In Coker’s case, the sky is the limit.

Floating above clouds

“Dark lightning” is another name for terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, lightning-associated phenomena inside thunderclouds that give off neither heat nor light but produce radiation strong enough to pass through the walls of aircraft, as well as the people inside them. Its effect on flight attendants, pilots and passengers, as well as the dangers the rays pose, is not known, though the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is investigating.

Michele Coker

Michele Coker

Coker’s research will yield data about the flashes occurring over the undulating mountain ranges and valleys of Western North Carolina. To collect it, she is sending out weather balloons that are traceable, retrievable and capable of transmitting data live. To help track the balloons and record their data, Coker in late 2012 organized a network of amateur radio operators, many of them WCU graduates in the area.

In February, the trackers followed Coker’s latest launch into the jet stream 90,000 feet above the mountains. They watched in frustration as the balloon zipped along at 130 mph toward the Atlantic, eventually landing in the ocean north of Virginia Beach, Va. Coker thought the experiment might be a bust, but two middle school teachers found the payload – a Styrofoam container full of instruments – on the beach at the Outer Banks. Recognizing its scientific value, they shipped it to Coker. She and Enrique Gomez, the WCU assistant professor of physics guiding her research, spent spring break analyzing the data. Coker’s work could make a valuable contribution to the understanding of terrestrial gamma-ray flashes in the mountains, said Gomez, who called Coker, a nontraditional student with two children in high school, “an extraordinary student.”

“I’ve wanted to get off the planet since I was a kid,” Coker, from the space-centric city of Houston, said. “This work of mine is the only way that’s going to happen. There’s a lot going on above the cloud tops that we don’t know about.”

After graduation this May, Coker hopes to find work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. She’d also like to carry her research into primary and secondary schools in the hopes of inspiring future science and math majors. “I want to show kids that science is exciting and new discoveries are waiting to be made. It’s not just sitting in a lab and pushing buttons,” she said.

Caring for nurses

In summer 2013, pre-med student Merab Mushfiq was reading in nursing journals that Africans aren’t getting the medical care they need. Nurses in Africa are overworked and underpaid, Mushfiq learned. Continuing to study accounts of the situation in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, the biology major from Lahore, Pakistan, found that there’s a shortage of nurses in those countries largely because of a two-track education system.

Merab Mushfiq

Merab Mushfiq

People become nurses by completing a one-year training program in a clinic or by completing a four-year baccalaureate program. A college degree in nursing provides a solid foundation in medicine and heightens the likelihood that graduates will leave Africa to make more money elsewhere. The one-year clinical certification qualifies graduates to perform clinical procedures but also sets them up for abuse, Mushfiq found. Though the two tracks launch graduates on vastly different career paths, they produce the same end result – patients suffer from a lack of care.

Clinical nurses often are left with more patients than they can care for, said Mushfiq, an Honors College student. They have so much to do and so little time to do it that they can’t give the patients the time they deserve. When they’re not at work, many have families to care for that often include their husbands’ family.

“They’re not getting proper rest and downtime,” causing their work to suffer further, Mushfiq’s research indicates. Fatigued, they become absent-minded in the clinic, which at best means a dressing down by doctors and at worst the death of a patient. “The health care they give suffers because of the depression, which gets worse when patients get nasty because they’re not getting proper treatment,” Mushfiq said.

Her research, presented at the undergraduate research conference, has prompted her to propose solutions that might increase the number of nurses who stay in Africa, thereby raising the level of care that residents receive. The countries she studied would encourage nursing candidates to go the four-year college route by making scholarships more available, she said. Because so many candidates drop out before graduation, she suggests decreasing the length of the program by a year.

“I’m interested in working in poor regions like this,” Mushfiq said, explaining her plans to attend medical school after WCU. “I’m really focused after my degree to go to these countries to educate them to treat people better medically.”

Crushing on kudzu

Talk about making lemonade out of lemons. Honors College student Austin Brown is working on making after-dinner drinks out of kudzu. A biology major from Greensboro, Brown is learning all he can about the invasive vine, including the potential the nutrient-rich plant has as an herbal digestif of the sort that is big in France.

Austin Brown

Austin Brown

“I want to make spirits and wines that are outside of the box,” he said. Intently focused on a vision that his work at WCU has helped him refine, Brown plans to own a farm near Greensboro that will grow and process raw botanicals into healthy juices and beverages. “We’re interested in pushing the boundaries,” he said. And the after-dinner drink market is ripe for exploration, he believes. His research indicates that there isn’t a whole lot of it in the U.S.

Kudzu has great potential because it’s everywhere, it’s a nuisance, so it likely would be free, he said. “It’s actually really healthy,” said Brown. His presentation about the distillation potential of mountain plants was judged one of the two best during WCU’s Discovery Forum, a November 2013 event in which young people shared innovative ideas for making their communities better places to live. “Kudzu has a lot of isoflavones,” he said. “I’m not sure what they taste like yet, but some of them are used to help with circulation and menopause.” He’s exploring an idea that kudzu compounds inhibit alcohol consumption, making the plant a natural for a postprandial sipper formulated to help one’s stomach relax.

Brown, who presented his work at a state entrepreneurship forum at North Carolina A&T University in February, said his work at WCU is very much in the research phase, one that involves him gathering and digesting material about kudzu and other botanical flavorings. This summer and fall, Brown will be working at a winery in France. He hopes his work there will further his research at WCU, which he hopes will involve grinding up kudzu, breaking down the starches and getting a sense of what it smells like as a drink.

With more biodiversity than just about anywhere else on earth, WNC’s mountains probably have all kinds of healthful and flavorful plants that could be used to create the kind of drinks that Europeans have distilled for centuries, Brown believes. This research “has really given me something to focus on,” he said. “It has given me something that I can constantly be thinking about, something that I can directly apply to where I’m going in my life.”

Digging her work

A couple of years ago, an archeology crew working on the banks of the Tuckaseigee River in advance of a N.C. Highway 107 bridge replacement found a fragment of pottery. That wasn’t particularly surprising, said Jane Eastman, an associate professor of anthropology and the director of Cherokee studies on campus. Excavations done in the 1960s revealed an 18th-century Cherokee town near the river. What was unusual were the distinct markings on the potsherd and its fine craftsmanship. Stampings like those had been found on pottery in ancient Native American burial mounds in Kentucky and Ohio. Noting the deep orange clay composition, researchers there said the pots may have come from the Southern Appalachians. Eastman found one possible source of the clay along Cullowhee Creek near WCU and the Tuckaseigee site.

Paige Tester and Jane Eastman

Paige Tester and Jane Eastman

Eastman wondered, were the pots made in the area and taken north? She devised a series of experiments to see if they could stand the rigors of travel. The research, conducted by Honors College student Paige Tester, also would help Eastman determine whether the pots were used for ceremonial or utilitarian purposes, such as cooking. To test the strength of the clay that Eastman dug, Tester ran three experiments, mixing it with three different “tempers” – crushed quartz, medium sand and coarse sand. Tester made pottery strips with each additive and found that those made with quartz were strongest.

The experiment was dear to her heart because Tester, from Cherokee, was raised by a family of enrolled tribal members. As a girl, she often visited Cherokee crafts shops where her grandmother worked, marveling at the pottery she saw. A fan of master detectives Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew as a child, Tester is drawn to the mystery of who her stepfamily’s ancestors were. After a year at Warren Wilson College working on its excavation of a Spanish fort near Morganton, she transferred to WCU and became an anthropology major.

“I enjoy being in the dirt,” she said, laughing at the image of herself scraping away at an archeological site. “There is nothing like that moment when you find an artifact. It’s almost very childlike. You get so excited touching something that maybe is hundreds or thousands of years old. You’re connecting with people from so long ago.”

Tester presented her findings on the clay composition of the pottery strips she created at NCUR and to the Cherokee Archeological Symposium hosted by the Cherokee Tribal Historic Preservation Office. At the time, she was an intern at the office, learning about the protection and repatriation of Native American human remains and funereal objects. “I feel extremely lucky to be taking part in work that helps my community,” she said.

Getting everyone on board

One day his freshman year, Nicholas Heim was playing golf with his father when he noticed that the GPS device in their cart let them know how far from a hole they were. Heim saw in the device a solution that could increase Cat-Tran ridership on the university campus. Because students, faculty and staff don’t like standing outside waiting for a bus, Heim started working on a mobile app – CatCatch – that lets them know where it is. The app works by following GPS trackers on the vehicles. Students can follow them in real time.

Nicholas Heim

Nicholas Heim

Heim, a Hendersonville resident majoring in finance and entrepreneurship, took the idea to his business classes. His faculty mentor told him to work up a feasibility study to see if students would use the app. Heim rode the buses for two days, talking to 700 students and other riders. Ninety-two percent said they would use it. Seventy-five percent said they would pay $1 to download it.

“Next, I developed the idea of how the app would fit Western,” Heim said. “I don’t have programming capabilities, so I’m working with the computer science department to find a talented programmer for my business team. We hope to have a prototype by the end of this year.”

He’ll test it by putting a GPS device on his car and having the prototype track him around campus. Once he perfects it, he has to sell the idea to WCU, which may involve a presentation to the chancellor or the university’s Board of Trustees. That’s the biggest part of the process, he said. “I have to have a thorough business plan and be effective in communicating the idea to the university,” he said.

Heim wants to go into corporate banking upon graduation, then on to an MBA program with the idea of starting his own business. “As far as what that business will be, I have no idea,” he said. “I just know that I want to work for myself someday.”

Innovating local solutions

The Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology is awash in project-based learning, where students take on the kinds of work they’ll be doing as engineers, land developers and construction administrators. As director for the school’s Center for Rapid Project Realization, Patrick Gardner sees a half-dozen inventors and business reps each week who have systems and products they hope the center will help them develop or improve upon. “They’re anywhere from scratched out on a napkin to full patents and engineering drawings,” he said of the ideas. Gardner, who oversees a staff of engineers, has to determine if the student-driven outcomes can be achieved within the confines of an academic year.

Much of the work helps local companies. The businesses and inventors that benefited from students’ senior capstone projects this spring were based in Swannanoa, Cullowhee, Robbinsville, Franklin and Rosman, as well as Raleigh, Fayetteville and Gainesville, Fla. The projects force students to synthesize what they’ve learned in class into solutions that meet their clients’ needs, Gardner said. The work takes them through the entire engineering process, from defining the problem and conceptualizing solutions to testing various possibilities and narrowing the search. Working with budgets, schedules, materials availability and risk management, the student teams design a product or system that can be prototyped, field-tested and affordably built.

Optical Cable Corp., a Virginia-based company that has a plant in Swannanoa, has turned to engineering students at the Kimmel School several times to gauge the suitability of augmenting its fiber-optic cable and connectivity products with new technologies. For instance, work done by a team of students helped the company evaluate the sensors and microcontrollers in data center products to find ways to shed heat better and prolong hardware life. The work entailed the same type of activities the students will encounter after graduation. The company was so pleased with the Kimmel School and the senior capstone program that it hired three of the students who worked on various projects.

“They were well-versed with the issue at hand,” said Ian Timmins, vice president of engineering for its enterprise connectivity group at Optical Cable Corp. “They knew the technologies that they would work with, and we knew what they could do with it.”

For a manufacturer in Fletcher, a student team designed, prototyped and demonstrated a semi-automated, camera-based inspection system that will allow the company to identify product defects and double production. For Army Special Forces, a student team designed, prototyped and tested an optical/acoustic device for area entry that was designed according to military specifications for environmental survivability.

“The list just goes on and on,” Gardner said. “Of the 20 projects I have this year, maybe half are repeat customers. I’m just always bringing in new clients and new ideas and new opportunities for students. This is so much fun for them that they often work on them during (university) breaks.”

Looking into the future

Undergraduate research is a source of pride at WCU, not in the quantitative sense but in the quality of work and the quality of richness it brings to an undergraduate’s experience, Burton said.

That work cuts across academic disciplines at the university, where even undergraduate research can be a topic for research. Jared McMillan collaborated with the Honors College student Board of Directors to develop “WheeSearch,” a group of undergraduate students who support each other’s research by introducing perspectives and ideas the researcher may not have thought of. Coming at a problem from various disciplines often opens up avenues previously unconsidered and better reflects the working environment that people in creative fields find upon graduation, McMillan said. For example, a pre-med biology major would benefit by running her research by students majoring in chemistry, English and entrepreneurship. That’s the kind of teamwork that headhunters are looking for.

Research by McKenzye DeHart-McCoyle could help the U.S. Forest Service decide when and where it lets companies clear-cut portions of forests in Western North Carolina. DeHart-McCoyle is part of a team from WCU, the forest service and Clemson University analyzing the effects of naturally occurring gaps in the woods on the plants that live in the openings’ edges. English major Leah Rhodes has been researching the power of the written word, via Shakespeare. Her examination, done last semester as an honors project in an English class, examined the role of Feste, the fool in Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.”

Nichole C. Eads and Sarah McNamara have worked with James Scifers, associate professor of athletic training, on separate research projects in that field. Eads has studied a form of joint dislocations that are extremely rare in athletics, research that has left her well-positioned for the work she’ll do as a graduate student this fall at Ohio University. McNamara, an Honors College student, has conducted research measuring the effects of different forms of warm-up methods on hamstring flexibility.

The academic work done by Eads, McNamara and their fellow undergraduate researchers is similar to what graduate students do at other institutions, said Scifers. “A lot of our undergraduate students leave here basically having done a graduate thesis. Many go on to graduate school and work to improve their thesis idea. They already know the process involved,” he said. “The behavior they learn here, they carry out the rest of their careers, which is good for their profession.”

Paige Tester is grateful to get her hands dirty, so to speak, researching the composition of Cherokee pots made so long ago. The work reinforced all that she has studied. “I think sometimes we as students get bogged down thinking about things theoretically,” she said. “Being able to do this hands-on work gave me a better understanding of what we were studying. Knowing how this pottery is made is a huge part of understanding it from an archeological perspective.”