On the trail of research

On the trail of research

Penn State Berks professor unites community with the help of undergraduate research

Image Credit: Adapted from Flickr user michaelwm25
trees blooming along a pathe

The Schuylkill River Trail has a bit of a reputation in Reading.

Local residents see the one-mile stretch of the river and its accompanying trail that runs through their town as a place marred by poverty, pollution and crime, thanks in part to a homicide that happened on the trail several years ago.

But Laurie Grobman, a professor of English and women’s studies at Penn State Berks, (along with several colleagues, students and community partners) sees the trail as something the community desperately needs: the potential for a safe place for children and other members of the community to interact with nature.

This spring, Grobman is using digital technologies to spread positive stories about the trail to the people of Reading. She hopes the stories — which will be written and published by students in her spring 2016 English 472 course — will change people's minds and raise awareness about cleaning up the trail.

“I’m hoping that publishing these stories digitally as an eBook will get more people reading these stories than if we published them traditionally,” said Grobman. “We’d love to get as many people from the community involved in cleaning up the trail as we can — it’s essential for turning the trail into a well-maintained recreational spot.”

Grobman and her project team — which includes instructional designer Heather Hughes and instructional multimedia designer Mary Ann Mengel — will be publishing the eBook as part of Grobman’s fellowship with Information Technology Services’ TLT Fellows program. The program partners staff members from Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) at Penn State’s University Park campus with faculty members interested in experimenting with new ways of using information technology in higher education.

Although this is the first year that Grobman is focusing on the Schuylkill River Trail, she’s been doing versions of the project with her students for several years. She’s previously had her students write about several different underrepresented groups in the Reading area, including the Jewish and African-American communities.

Previously, the finished books were sent to a publisher to be printed and bound at the end of the semester. Bart Pursel, manager of faculty programs in TLT, says this was where he saw an opportunity for technology to step in.

teacher and some children in the hiking club posing for picture
Credit: Courtesy of Laurie Grobman

Laurie Grobman standing with some of the children in her hiking club.

“A challenge in the past with Laurie’s project has been finding the funds to physically publish and distribute the book at the end of the semester. Plus, you can only print so many,” said Pursel. “We wanted to approach her about ways technology could help. After all, you’re not going to run out of eBooks.”

To begin, Grobman and her team researched different digital publication tools and processes. At Hughes’ suggestion, Mengel and Grobman decided on Sites at Penn State — a Penn State service that hosts easy-to-build websites — and the Anthologize plug-in, which will take the individual stories and combine them into an eBook.

“Using Sites at Penn State will create a collaborative writing and publishing workflow for the students,” said Mengel. “Meanwhile, the Anthologize plug-in will enable publishing the collection as an eBook.”

To test the new process and smooth out the kinks, Grobman piloted the project in her fall 2015 Civic and Community Engagement course. The students experimented with the technology to make sure it got the results Grobman wanted. Additionally, the team wanted to make the project’s previous volumes available online.

To help with this process, the team hired Rebecca Jonas — a student studying information sciences and technology at Penn State Berks — to help reformat, upload and copy edit the books’ content. She will also help this semester’s students if and when they run into technical issues as they work on their stories.

Jonas says that in addition to helping others learn, she’s also had learning experiences of her own. She says working on the project has let her further explore her own interest in design by helping improve the usability of the eBooks. For example, Jonas was able to tweak the location of the ‘next chapter’ button that appears at the end of each chapter.

girls looking at a snail
Credit: Courtesy of Laurie Grobman

Children examine a freshwater snail at the edge of the Schuylkill River.

“The button used to be below the bibliography on the last page of the chapter. I suggested we move it above the bibliography so readers aren't required to scroll through 40 footnotes before they can get to the next chapter, although the information is there if they want it," Jonas said. "This may seem like a small change, but being able to use my knowledge of intuitive usability design to help this project has been a great experience for me."

This type of out-of-the-classroom learning is one of the reasons Pursel says the project is a good example of Penn State’s Engaged Scholarship Initiative, which stresses the importance of students getting academic experience out of the classroom as well as in it. But he says an even better example is the practice Grobman’s students will get participating in community-based research.

While working on their stories, Grobman’s students not only have to hone their writing and digital publishing skills, but also interview and interact with community members — skills they wouldn’t normally build sitting in a classroom.

“An experience like this, where students get out of their comfort zone and interact with members of community, can help build empathy,” said Pursel. “Talking to these people and hearing their stories is more impactful than reading something in a textbook, and hopefully they can pass that experience on through the completed book.”

Grobman and her team hope that publishing the books digitally will help preserve and spread the stories of the region to a broader audience.

"In the past, the cost of printing books prevented them from being widely available,” said Mengel. “The digital publication process will make it possible for more people to read and learn from our students' work in sharing the histories of racial, ethnic and cultural communities of Berks County."

For Jonas, working on the project has made her realize the importance of telling stories in any form. She says that while going through previous years’ books, the volume “A History of the Jewish Community in Reading and Berks County” impacted her the most. To her surprise, though, Jonas said it wasn’t the tragic accounts of the ways Nazis treated Jews in Europe that hit her the hardest — it was the stories of kindness shared between the Holocaust survivors.

"Stories are crucial to cultural education because they don't just present facts — they present the nature of human behavior," said Jonas. "They show that even when all signs point to someone becoming hardened and cold, a simple positive experience they remember can keep their outlook optimistic and hopeful."

Grobman says she hopes the project ignites a similar passion among her own students, especially in the area of research, something undergraduates don’t get a lot of experience doing in other classes. She says that much like the trail they’re hoping to rehabilitate, research is about embarking on a path, eager to see how it ends.

Contact(s):

Katie Jacobs Bohn
kej5009@psu.edu