Student Research Takes Center Stage at ConferenceMarch 25, 2014

More than 300 students presented their original research on a host of topics within psychology as part of the 34th annual Great Plains Student Psychology Conference March 21 and 22, hosted by Rockhurst University.

The conference included more than 130 unique individual and group presentations, according to William Sturgill, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rockhurst who planned the conference. Thirty-four schools from across the region are represented, including the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas State University and William Jewell College.

The conference this year included the Steven F. Davis Distinguished Lecture about research into the cognitive capacities of the very young by Susan Hespos, Ph.D., the director of graduate studies at Northwestern University.

Elsewhere, students took center stage, with oral presentations, poster sessions and panel discussions involving primarily undergraduate students. The organizers of the conference seek to involve as many students as possible, Sturgill said.

“We really encourage the students in the psychology program to get involved,” he said. “It helps them build skills like time management and public speaking that will be important in their professional lives.”

The conference this year included a number of research projects spearheaded by Rockhurst students, with 11 presentations from among the University’s undergraduate students. A total of 20 Rockhurst students presented their findings. That list includes Paul Hess, who spent approximately a month at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia, home to more than 120 chimpanzees. He observed the chimps during his time there, looking specifically at their ability to manipulate objects. It’s a subject that he said he knew could turn into a presentation at the conference.

“The research I will integrate into the presentation has some interesting information about cognition in primates as well as in humans, and I think it will be something that the conference attendees will find engaging,” Hess said.

Marissa Schuett, Lillian Barrilleaux, Brianna Carrizales, and Kristyn Keith presented the results of their study into what effect pregnancy and the ethnicity of a pregnant woman’s companion has on the willingness of a store clerk to offer help. Other Rockhurst-based research presentations included insights into the role that low exposure plays in a subject’s fear of firearms; the relationship between bilingual experience and the desire to raise bilingual children; research into “death thought availability” in subjects with differing religious and moral worldviews; a survey of critical thinking capacities between freshmen and senior-level college students; and research on distinguishing “hostile” from “negative” words.

In addition to learning professional skills, Schuett said turning a hypothesis into an experiment, then collecting the data, arranging the findings and presenting the information made for a learning experience unlike others she’s had.

“When you present at a conference like this, it’s different than writing a paper and then turning that in,” she said. “You really have to understand the material and be able to explain it. And I think that’s an important skill.”

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