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Animal-Assisted Therapy at the Council for Undergraduate Research

unnamedEach year, all honors freshman take part in a year-long First-Year Experience (FYE) class tailored toward preparing students for success in the Honors Program. Among these classes is Animal-Assisted Therapy, an intensive exercise in research methods and service-learning taught by Dr. Jerri Kropp and Dr. Trent Maurer. While learning how to utilize both physical and online databases and look at findings from an international perspective, students also participate in a hands-on service project that pairs them with either a certified therapy dog or a local therapeutic horseback riding program, Stirrup Some Fun. Students emerge from this class fully prepared for tackling future research projects, such as their honors thesis; some are even inspired to continue working with therapy animals. For Caroline Lathi (health education & promotion ’18), the class provided her with the opportunity to attend the annual Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) conference in Tampa, Florida this summer as one of only a few students in attendance. Alongside Dr. Maurer and Dr. Kropp, Lathi helped deliver a presentation titled “Integrating Scaffolded Research with Service-Learning into a First Year, Two Semester Course Sequence.”

The presentation focused on applying scaffolded research methods to a classroom setting, scaffolded research being research that builds on prior knowledge held by the students.

“We set up our class based on a model by Dr. Jenny Shanahan, the director of undergraduate research at Bridgewater State University, that provides thirty research skills for students,” said Dr. Kropp. “This is a process that could take four years for a student to accomplish, but one of the things that we are proud of is that we do all of them in the two course sequence, and with freshmen.”

Both professors wanted to share their unique, rigorous approach to teaching research in a condensed timeframe, but they felt a student voice was necessary for their presentation.

Dr. Maurer said, “Although CUR is focused on undergraduate research, very few of the presenters are actually undergraduate students, so getting that ‘voice’ represented is extremely important. What we wanted was someone who could speak first-hand to what he or she got out of the course. When we thought about our prior year’s FYE class and which students would be good fits for this, Caroline’s name very quickly rose to the top.”

Dr. Kropp agreed. “Of course we had many great students in the class, but I think Caroline also had the confidence to speak to an audience. She also seemed to really embrace the service-learning and get the research component, and we thought she’d be a really good representative for the class.”

Lathi had just completed the course, but she jumped on the opportunity to present research just after the completion of her freshman year, an experience very few students have.

“I ended up loving the class and working with therapy dogs, so I was happy to be able to share my perspective,” said Lathi. “I was really nervous going in because I was addressing these professors whose careers are dedicated to undergrad research, but once I started talking it was very easy to speak to the crowd. It was fun.”

Preparing for the presentation proved slightly challenging, since the conference was at the end of June and Lathi was attending a leadership retreat the week before. While the group had discussed their plans before the semester ended, Dr. Kropp and Dr. Maurer did not see Lathi’s contributions to their PowerPoint until the day before the presentation.

“This was not an accident,” Dr. Maurer said. “It was because we completely trusted in her ability and her professionalism—based on her performance in our course sequence—and we knew whatever she created would be a perfect fit for the presentation.  I can’t think of a greater testament to her abilities than placing that kind of trust in her.”

The presentation was an inevitable success; in fact, Dr. Shanahan, whose research made the animal assisted therapy class possible, was actually in attendance.

“She’s someone we look up to as a mentor, so we were really pleased that she came to our presentation,” said Dr. Kropp.

Once the presentation was over, the group was able to enjoy the rest of the conference, which included listening to panels and, in the spirit of global citizenship, meeting researchers from around the world. Lathi was able to meet the presenters on Dr. Maurer’s other panel: one faculty member from Canada, one faculty member from the U.K., and one undergraduate student from the U.K. While encountering many new people and ideas, Lathi was also able to see her own experience as a student researcher from another viewpoint.

“I liked going to the other presentations as one of the only students there,” she said.
“Being a student and listening to professors talk about how you learn is very interesting. It was cool to receive that different perspective.”

Lathi’s student voice was just as valuable to the professors in attendance. Dr. Maurer said, “Student voices are important to the conversations had there, and certainly very, very welcome, but they are few and far between.  Students like Caroline help those of us who work with undergraduates on research to see the impact of our work. Being able to give any student an opportunity like that is a rare and precious thing.”


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