July 09, 2018, BY Beth Kaszuba

Bucknell students stand on steps on campus.
This year's Bucknell Institute for Public Policy summer research fellows are, front, left to right, Drew Dorflinger '20, Emily Shapiro '19, Suphanat Juengprasertsak '21, and, back, left to right, Tabitha Wismer '19 and Rebeca Mercado-Rios '20. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

Their majors range from international relations to early childhood education, and their research interests span the diverse topics of gun control, corporate influence on prisons and farm-based biogas production.

So what do these five undergraduates — international relations major Rebeca Mercado-Rios '20; Suphanat Juengprasertsak '21, majoring in civil engineering; Drew Dorflinger '20, majoring in political science and economics; and early childhood education majors Tabitha Wismer '19 and Emily Shapiro '19 — all have in common?

They are summer research fellows with the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP), which supports full-time, faculty-guided projects that culminate in presentations at the Susquehanna Valley Undergraduate Research Symposium or another approved venue.

For Mercado-Rios, who is examining how prison privatization impacts public policy related to immigrant detention and incarceration, conducting original research as an undergraduate is a step toward her goals of attending graduate school and eventual diplomatic service.

The topic is also important to Mercado-Rios on a personal level.

"I'm an immigrant from Bolivia," she explained. "This project drew me because it's close to my identity. And it seemed like the perfect time to conduct this study, with all that's happening related to immigration policy in the United States."

Mercado-Rios, a Posse scholar, added that working with her faculty mentor, Professor Vanessa Massaro, geography, has expanded her interest in geography, economics and political science.

Massaro, whose research interests include the effects of incarceration on minority and low-income populations, said Mercado-Rios is "a thorough researcher," whose "deeper investigation into the role of private entities in immigrant detention and migration policy are timely and important."

Massaro added, "Rebeca's work demonstrates the importance of social science research to better understanding the most pressing problems of our day."

Scrutinizing Teaching Tools
For future educators Wismer and Shapiro, BIPP fellowships have enabled them to jointly pursue a project that examines online resources they already use as they prepare to lead their own classrooms.

Their study, guided by Professor Lara Dick, mathematics, focuses on factors that influence teachers' decisions to download math worksheets from two popular websites.

Tabitha Wismer ’19, left, and Emily Shapiro ’19 are teaming up to study the factors that compel teachers to download math activities for classroom use. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

"We're asking whether teachers are using certain activities because they're cute and fun, or if they're really good for students," Wismer explained.

Shapiro noted that the survey-based study is designed to give teachers tools to find online resources that correlate with students' cognitive demands.

"Most similar research looks at textbooks and physical resources," she said. "But we're finding that teachers are moving away from textbooks. Ninety-nine percent of our respondents have searched online for elementary math activities."

Growing 'Comfortable with Risk'
Two other fellows, Juengprasertsak and Dorflinger, are approaching public policy research from the perspectives of engineering and political science.

Juengprasertsak is using a methodology that is new to him — interviewing — to examine the political ecology of farm-based biogas production in the United States, looking at both small- and large-scale operations.

Dorflinger, meanwhile, is studying the impact that lobbying and gun control measures, such as background checks, weapons bans and permitting requirements, have on levels of gun violence.

Amy Wolaver, professor of economics and director of BIPP, said she was impressed by the diversity and scope of projects undertaken by this year's fellows.

"One of BIPP's biggest priorities is to foster opportunities for students to do social science research," Wolaver added. "Conducting a research project gives students academic and life skills they will be able to draw on in their future courses and careers. When you begin one of these projects, you don't know what you'll find, and learning to be comfortable with that risk and uncertainty is something that can benefit every student."