Monday, December 3, 2012

The UAA Brain Bee: A New Look at the Neuroscience of the Brain!

Caroline Wilson, an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and faculty with WWAMI, found a way for UAA students and Anchorage high school students to get interested in a particular kind of science - an enrichment opportunity that gets to the base of who we are and why!  The Brain Bee is an internationally recognized program that was founded by Dr. Norbert Myslinski at the University of Maryland.  It motivates students to learn about the brain, to capture their imaginations and inspire them to pursue careers in biomedical brain research Currently there are 150 locations worldwide that hold Brain Bees, and in 2011, UAA joined them! 
Brain Bee participants
Professor Wilson came to UAA from Dennison University, which had a very big Brain Awareness Week as a part of their regular programming.  Upon arriving here in Anchorage, she heard about the opportunity for community engagement grants when she and this Director met at the Cross Cultural Immersion Project sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum.  Wilson added the community engagement component to her Biology A490 class and set goals for the first Brain Bee:
1) Enrich the high school curricula to an understanding of the neuroscience of the brain.
2) Implement community engagement in a Bachelor of Science undergraduate setting.

One issue that arose immediately was the difficulty of creating an entree into the high school science program, but Polaris High School was very interested.  There were 30 UAA students, and they had the choice of going out to present information to the high schoolers, assisting at the Brain Bee event in March, or making posters about the brain for a library poster display.  Wilson laughs about the difficulty in planning a new event when you're not a planner! 
The Brain Bee incorporates 10 short answer questions from a guide that is used internationally, and 3 UAA faculty functioned as the judges.  Eight high school students participated from six area high schools, and cash prizes of $100, $75, and $50 were given to the top three students.  The second annual Brian Bee is scheduled for February 16, 2013 with plans for more student participation on both the high school and university sites!  The winner this year will travel with a parent to the National Brain Bee competition in Washington D.C. just a few weeks after the Anchorage competition.

Chester Creek Water Quality Monitoring with Biology 373

Professor Frank von Hippel received a minigrant in spring 2012 to re-engage Biology 373 students with the Russian Jack Community Council and the Anchorage Waterways Council in a project focused on the reassessment of water and habitat quality.  Students were involved with replicating analyses conducted by earlier classes (2001-2005 and 2009) for before and after restoration comparisons; assisting with new analyses using stable isotope techniques to test for the presence of marine-derived nutrients in the system; and making recommendations for future restoration work with a damaged portion of the creek.  Prior studies found there were indications of "potential human health impacts and reduced species richness due to degradation of the watershed.
Students in Biology 373
Professor von Hippel is a proponent of community-engaged learning and has found in the years that he has been teaching in this way that a number of his students were able to use this specific experience to get jobs in water monitoring and to get interested in this field.  He stated, "Prior to 2001, I taught water quality assessment using laboratory exercises.  Student evaluations since 2001 clearly indicate the power of teaching these techniques in a field setting with real-world applications."  The intention this year was to assess the impacts of the restoration of Westchester Lagoon on upstream habitat in Chester Creek and to leverage the work already completed to develop a restoration plan for the impaired section of the Creek in the Russian Jack area.  With nearly of decade of data already compiled, a plan can be presented for community approval and subsequent funding requests will allow students to engage in restoration activities.

von Hippel commented on the demands of engaged learning with real life projects.  Data quality is a concern in that student data has to be as good as faculty data if it is going to be used by the community for policy work or for publication; it requires considerable faculty time and oversight.  He or a graduate student collect their own water chemistry data for comparison purposes and look at student data right away to redo what seems out of the realm of possible or probable, and for the invertebrate data, they are alongside students as they record data.  They use occasions to teach critical thinking in the moment by looking at what students have done and asking, "Does this make sense?"  Most of the data issues experienced in the early years were solved by switching to a simpler chemistry kit.  A CCEL grant made it possible in the beginning to pay for supplies and a student helper, and the minigrants still assist with the costs of the monitoring kits.  Long-term commitment to this project has made it possible for students to see the before and after impacts of the environmental intervention with the Westchester Lagoon and to deepen the relationship with the community partners.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dr. Judith Owens-Manley, Director of the Center for Community Engagement & Learning and Social Work faculty,  presented at the 2012 Community Leadership Workshop Series sponsored byNeighborWorks® Anchorage.  On April 21, 2012, Dr. Owens-Manley led a discussion on "Community Engagement," accompanied by a powerpoint presentation.  The presentation included how UAA students and faculty engage with the community and the opportunities for grassroots community groups to engage with the university. 

This series of four workshops were free and open to all Anchorage residents and community members. Topics included Community Issues, Community Vision, Community Engagement, and Community Action.

NeighborWorks® Anchorage focuses on affordable rental housing, home ownership/rehabilitation, and community engagement and resident services.  The organization is dedicated to improving the quality of life for families and individuals by preserving homes, creating new housing opportunities and strengthening neighborhoods.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Structure From Motion!

Gennady Gienko, Associate Professor of Geomatics in the School of Engineering, is at work developing a very interesting technique that is used to reconstruct the shape of objects using multiple cameras.  This allows for the generation of high resolution, very textured 3D polygonal models, implementing gneral algorithms for stereo vision.  If that sounds complicated, it is for most of the general population.  Gienko used professional level digital cameras with an eye toward some very practical applications.  For instance, one of the most intriguing uses here in Alaska may be to create 3D photographic models of Native Art, pieces that are either sequestered behind glass and can only be viewed at a certain location, or works of art that may deteriorate over time and could be preserved in these polygonal models.
Other uses may include portraits, buildings and structures, light poles in a community, vehicles, etc.  Gienko recently presented the beginning of his work to establish the calibrations for control of distortion at very short and long distances.  He plots the distortions and plots the integrity of dark and light shades, also paying attention to shape - smooth vs. sharp; texture - matte vs. glossy; lighting - shadow vs. glares; and object vs. background, the field of depth.  His most recent project was a photo-textured model of a piece of Native art, a walrus.  He has found that bone is better than ivory, which requires polarizing filters to deal with the glare.
3D Model of Walrus Carving
(To fully experience the 3D model, click this link to PDF) - 3D Model of Walrus Carving

Gienko says there are a variety of applications of these techniques for a variety of disciplines.  His next step is to move to 3 types of objects: the carving, which he is working on now; jewelry, and then large objects, such as a canoe.  He plans to design a course for students in technical photography, a 1 credit course to be called GEO 257 "Technical Photography for the Arts & Sciences."  He believes these techniques will appeal to artists and scientists alike!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Justice for Fraud Victims

Assistant Professor of Accounting Kevin Dow describes himself as "simply a dealmaker, putting particular people together to create this service-learning project."  Professor Dow also stresses that the UAA project is a replication project, modeled after a program developed by Dr. Sara Melendy at Gonzaga University.  The official pilot of the project was fall semester, and spring semester continued the pilot.  Fall 2012 will see a full Justice for Fraud Victims program instituted.

The project is a partnership, involving law enforcement agencies and the local chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE).  Dow says it's an opportunity for students "to experience forensic accounting in a unique and exciting way while simultaneously providing a valuable service to the community."  He raised $18,000 to purchase computers, printers, software, office supplies, etc.  It was important to be independent of the College of Business & Public Policy and to have a "wall" between the two for protocols and security procedures.

According to Dow, between 5 and 7 percent of all firms' proceeds are lost to some kind of fraud, and entry level fraud examiner reports cost upwards of $30,000.  A "victim" comes to the program through Certified Fraud Examiners or the police - they can't afford the professional audit and are willing to share details with the students.  An example from the spring semester's work is a $2,000 fraud from a local non-profit with a total operating budget of $6,000.  A team of students work on the case under the supervision of a CFE, and the CFE signs off on the final report.  The CFE is a buffer between the students and the Court, and the students have no exposure on the case.  Their goals are to increase the number of cases being investigated and prosecuted and to increase awareness in the community, possibly decreasing the occurrence of fraud.
The Team:  Detective Michele Logan, Law Enforcement Liaison, Anchorage Police Department; Pat Berry, CFE Liaison, Vice President & Chief Audit Executive, Credit Union 1; Kevin Dow, JFVP Program Director, UAA; Soren Orley, JFVP Faculty Coordinator, UAA; Minnie Yen, Computer Forensics, UAA.  Dow points out that Pat Berry is one of only 23 Certified Fraud Examiners in the state of Alaska - 17 when accounting for those employed by the IRA and FBI.  There is a need for CFEs in Alaska, and students are being trained to go into these careers.  Dow says that this program can make a difference and remedy the shortage over time.

Forensic accounting applies the use of audit and consulting techniques to a legal question; the training is invaluable to future accountants.  Students are gaining experience in conducting victim interviews, preparing workpapers and a final work product, drafting a report with recommendations, and providing a formal presentation of the findings to local anti-fraud professionals.  Dow observes that the training not only enhances oral and written presentation skills but also trains students in how to treat people.  "The last final report went through eight drafts," Dow said.  "Students have to reflect their way through it to create a professional work product, taking out their opinions and reactions, which is difficult for them."

Students who want to be a part of JFVP have to be senior accounting students and must go through an application process.  They should have a serious interest in forensic accounting, be willing to meet the time commitment, and demonstrate a reasonable level of writing proficiency.  For the accounting students, the work of a semester gives them four months of work experience that they can put toward the two years required to be certified as a Fraud Examiner.  In addition, the Certified Fraud Examiners that volunteer as mentors to the students are able to get 10  continuing education credits for the semester to count toward their requirements for professional education.

A sideline of this project has been a presentation on Fraud Literacy & Awareness, developed for small businesses.  Two students at UAA developed the presentation and are available to speak in the community.  In addition, the MBA program has a capstone course in which one team is working on a business plan for jFVP.  Dow says, "The real world environment provides a unique setting in which students actually learn and apply these skills." Other universities across the U.S. are now interested, and Dow and Melendy from Gonzaga are writing a very large grant to get a national Justice for Fraud Victims project going!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Heifer Canada and Heifer Senegal: A Sabbatical for Professor Dorn Van Dommelen

Dorn Van Dommelen has worked with Heifer International for about 5 years now to incorporate service-learning into a course confronting global issues of poverty and sustainability (GEOG/INTL 101), and he designed his sabbatical to enrich that work. With that in mind, he organized trips to Saskatchewan, Senegal, and Heifer International (HI) headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas with two objectives:
1) To help HI with their new program development working with colleges and universities that they are calling "College Cornerstones" - UAA students have been a part of that already; and
2) Visit the two countries for about 2 weeks each for a closer, more intimate look at their HI programs.

In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Van Dommelen visited the Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative and the Riverside Market Garden. The Harvest Moon Initiative is a group of small family businesses that have joined together out of a concern about being edged out by large agri-business. They've combined forces to support the school, restaurant, etc. in their community by taking them over, and they pool the food they grow and network with local food buyers in the city of Winnipeg. Each week, they take turns delivering the produce by van.
The Riverside Market Garden is located on the Flying Dust First Nations Reservation, and like many reservations, there is a great deal of poverty and unemployment. Elders brought 20-40 year-olds together and set aside 12-20 acres of land (land is often leased out to non-native farmers) to grow potatoes, greens, crucifers, corn, tomatoes, berries, etc. The group sells locally to native and non-native community, and their cash crop, potatoes is sold through a middle man for larger stores. The objective is to produce sustainable jobs locally plus provide better nutrition through eating locally grown food. The project is not yet economically viable and depends upon a relationship with the Canadian government to keep workers on unemployment in this training program.Van Dommelen said, "Heifer Canada's staff was extremely welcoming to me . . . they viewed my visit as an opportunity to hear constructive criticism from an outsider. . . In the end, I am convinced that a visit by an outsider seems to give country staff an opportunity to reflect on their own work and to view their work as someone with a critical eye would see their work."

The trip to Senegal in early November was to the city of Chess, about 40 miles from Dakar. Chess, (pop. about 400,000), is a former colonial city fallen into disrepair with a lot of extreme poverty. It was a different experience in that only a couple of hundred Westerners are seen in the entire city and then only in the western hotels. This was a site that insisted that Van Dommelen bring something to contribute if he wanted to come for the experience, and he worked with the site director, Gustave, who was trained as a sociologist. Gustave enlisted his aid in writing a project concept focused on youth education, and Van Dommelen translated a proposal based on a pilot project Gustave is currently running, teaching schoolchildren about the value of sustainable development. In this role, Van Dommelen was able to act as a culture broker between the Senegal office and HI headquarters.
HI has projects in Senegal in Dadack, Baback, and Diarre, mostly consisting of sheep and re-foresting.
The villages also depend upon a cash crop of peanuts, but all food is consumed locally, as Senegal is in food deficit and has to import food just to feed its citizens. Some villages also grow millet for local consumption. One of the interests of the Senegal office is to study rural-urban migration that disrupts the local projects when people start to run out of food and go hungry in-between crops. Then the elders call people together and send those selected to go and work in the city to send money back for the rest.
Van Dommelen has gotten busy this spring since returning from the one semester sabbatical but wants to hold onto the new ideas he's brought back with him. When asked how he thinks it will impact his teaching, Van Dommelen replied, "In Senegal especially, I got to see things that I didn't expect; I saw the depths of problems and the difficulty of overcoming issues up close. In Canada, I saw things that didn't always work well, and it's given me the ability to critically view projects that I'm teaching about."

Van Dommelen hopes to pursue opportunities both for students to travel for field courses in one or both countries in the future. He also wants to pursue research opportunities with HI projects in Canada and/or Senegal. He has already written a "mini case study" that he's using in a course he's teaching this spring on Global Population Issues. The implications for Alaska Native issues linked to the First Nations issues occurs as a mutually beneficial opportunity to Van Dommelen, and an opportunity for external funding to support student engagement activities and faculty research.