Connecting Through Intellect: Department of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Human Development Provides an Atmosphere for Diverse Learning

December 22, 2016

Human beings are incredibly complex. Understanding their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors is a challenging process. In the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Human Development at the University of Mount Union, faculty members prepare students with some of the most diverse experiential opportunities that the field has to offer, allowing students to develop appropriate research skills while completing coursework and learning experiences that span across psychology’s many sub-disciplines.   

The department is home to three undergraduate majors: psychology, neuroscience, and human development and family science (HDFS). Covering a broad range of topics, each program brings its own distinct perspective to students who may come to the classroom with a limited understanding of what the field of psychology actually offers. 

“Regardless of a student’s selection between the three programs, each student is provided with a rich, varied set of coursework and experiences that will challenge them academically and prepare them for the real world,” said Dr. Sarah Torok-Gerard, associate professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Human Development.

The coursework within each major blends practical career and graduate work preparation with the liberal arts foundation that is a hallmark of Mount Union’s rich academic tradition. Currently offering more than 40 unique courses, the curricula of the three majors represent both the breadth and depth of the field. Students can explore everything from understanding mental illness and the counseling process to nervous system influences on behavior, social and developmental processes, and human and animal cognition. 

“What could be more interesting than learning why people think and do the things they do?” said Chelsea Black ’17, a psychology major from Millersburg, Ohio. “I chose psychology as my major because it is a broad field that opens many doors to more specific career areas.”

Stigma-Busting Leadership
Movies and Madness, a course taught by Dr. Tamara Daily, professor of psychology, neuroscience, and human development who holds the Lewis Miller Professorship in Psychology, is always a sought-after choice for students regardless of major. The course focuses on how mental illness is portrayed in film and helps students understand the realities of how people, as well as their friends or family members, handle mental illnesses. 

Daily, a social psychologist who has taught the class since 2004, tasks her students with creating “stigma-buster” projects to help raise awareness and break down stereotypes related to mental illness. Examples of past projects include radio and print public service announcements, posters, discussion groups, mental health screenings, and many other community education endeavors. The projects give students the opportunity to be actively engaged in Alliance and surrounding communities and the ability to be at the forefront of important conversations regarding mental health.

Animal Instincts
Daily also brings her horse to campus each year as an experiential exercise in the Learning and Conditioning class and Animal Cognition class taught by Dr. Melissa Muller, associate professor of psychology, neuroscience, and human development. The first-hand learning that Muller implements in her classes not only features horses, but dogs as well. Tearing a page out of the Pavlovian playbook, one of the skills that she teaches is clicker training in dogs of all breeds and ages. The students’ own dogs are often those who come in to learn new tricks. Muller knows that the training is more impactful if students can take what they learn in the lab and apply it at home. The techniques of behavioral training are far more resonant and rewarding when a student’s own canine companion learns right along with them.

Muller also facilitates bringing therapy dogs to campus each semester to help students manage the stress of final exams. Working with Therapy Dogs International, Muller provides students with a calm and cuddly presence that gives them a much needed breather during their most stressful days.

Making a Real-World Impact
Mount Union is doing its part to help contribute high-quality research to the field by studying current psychological and neuropsychological issues affecting our society. Students and faculty utilize a variety of laboratory suites for independent research and experiential learning, including a physiological and neuropsychological research lab, a social and counseling lab, and the new canine cognition lab. These facilities provide students with research experiences that they would not typically see until their master’s thesis projects. These experiences are not only beneficial for their résumés, but to the literature of the field.

Dr. Michael Knepp, associate professor of psychology, neuroscience, and human development, leads an undergraduate research team every semester. Students in his lab gain quality field experience by running multiple cardiovascular and neuropsychological studies. The interaction that Knepp is able to have with his students is pivotal because they are able to receive individual attention. Knepp and his students created many international conference presentations over the past five years and have been published in Psychological Reports, Laterality, and Perspectives on Psychological Science

“At most schools, you would only get to create your own project as part of an honors thesis,” said Knepp. “These experiences help students with both their career and graduate school résumés by showing that they not only understand the material, but they can critically design projects and do the work in the field. At Mount Union, students are actively involved in subject running for my lab and also do most of the data quantification. That allows them to have a larger role in the publication process, both for conferences and research articles.” 

In the neuroscience major, students also develop the research skills necessary for graduate and professional school through journal articles and laboratory experiences in the Neuroscience: The Brain and Neuroscience: Behaviors and Psychiatric Disorders courses.

Beyond these independent study laboratories, the heart of the department’s curriculum focuses on creating quality researchers. Muller and Dr. Kristine Turko, associate professor of psychology, neuroscience, and human development, teach a two-course research methods sequence that helps budding scientists develop during their sophomore and junior years. During their senior year, all psychology, neuroscience, and HDFS majors take part in a senior research project that spans the course of two semesters. Students work collaboratively under the mentorship of Daily and Turko to create their own studies, collect data, run results, and discuss their findings. These sequences provide students with a minimum of four semesters’ worth of practical skills and exposure to a depth of scientific inquiry not even found at most Research-1 institutions, which are universities in the United States that engage in extensive research activity. 

“I enjoy watching students grow and move toward their goals,” Daily said. “This is especially true when I’m working with students on their senior research projects. Doing your own research as part of a team can be an anxiety-provoking and sometimes overwhelming process. Our job as faculty members is to shape and fade. We mold and tug and give loads of feedback. Then we back off and allow them more and more responsibility in the process. I love it when they start to take the reins and say, ‘I’ve got this.’”

Development for the Future
Dr. Kevin Meyer, associate professor of psychology, neuroscience, and human development, focuses on experiential learning in the classes he teaches as part of the HDFS major. Formed in conjunction with the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, HDFS has proven attractive to students who want to learn how family, society, and culture impact an individual’s development. 

“My favorite experience is being able to take what I’m learning in social psychology and observe it in other people,” said Bailey Grimm ’17, an HDFS major from McMurray, Pennsylvania. “It will prepare me for the career into which I hope to go. Educational Psychology is my favorite class so far because I like learning about all the different teaching methods and the way we develop over the years.”

The student experience ultimately comes first for the faculty members in the department, a fact that becomes very clear when you walk into any one of Meyer’s classes. Students may take his Psychology of Humor course, which gives them the opportunity to try their hand at stand-up comedy while learning the research and psychological facets of humor. In the class, students explore how humor develops in childhood and how it can benefit an individual psychologically and physiologically. In his Marriage and Family Therapy course, students utilize the department’s counseling lab, playing the part of therapist in live-action role-plays, which is another opportunity typically not presented to students until graduate school. 

Torok-Gerard’s seminar, The Origins of Psychology, has helped students prepare for the subject GRE in psychology by examining the history of the field. In her class, students conduct research at the Archives of the History of Psychology (AHAP), located at the neighboring University of Akron. This is a unique resource to which students have access, as they get to work with original correspondences, manuscripts, and published works created by the very psychologists they’ve learned about in their coursework. The end goal of the project is a historical autobiography of a selected theorist. While at AHAP, students also get a chance to visit the adjoining Center for the History of Psychology, which houses artifacts from infamous psychological experiments, like the shock generator used in psychologist Stanley Milgram’s studies on obedience. 

Often when individuals think of psychology, their first thoughts may focus on the clinical realms of the field, but Mount Union provides students with a range of internship experiences at sites throughout the area. Students from all three majors have participated in summer internships at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism over the past decade. Furthermore, Turko gives students the opportunity to participate in local internships through the Spectrum Education Center, of which she is also the director (see story on pages 10-13). The center focuses on helping individuals with autism. The student interns gain valuable knowledge about understanding those with autism and the continued advocacy surrounding the developmental disability field.

The experiences we have throughout life help shape who we are and who we might become. The faculty members of the Mount Union Department of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Human Development know they have limited time to mold the minds of their students. They know psychology and its various sub-disciplines are more complicated than a simple quiz question, and that making classroom content come to life in real-world settings is an indelible form of instruction. They know teaching is about taking risks, especially in a field where lack of innovation may put you behind. Preparing students for meaningful work in their careers is a commitment to which the department is passionately invested.


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