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It's all psychological

  Barbara Lau  
Sniffy the Virtual Rat, videotaped counseling sessions, and field study at the Brookfield Zoo are a few reasons why psychology is the most popular major at Cornell, producing graduates in public health, social work, counseling, teaching, and juvenile corrections.

New technology and facilities, plus Cornell’s One-Course-At-A-Time, enable psychology’s four full-time faculty members to provide a range of experiential and theoretical learning. Sue Astley credits Law Hall renovations with “revolutionizing” her teaching methods. A cognitive psychologist who specializes in animals, Astley welcomes Sniffy the Virtual Rat to her “General Psychology and Learning and Behavior” courses. This realistic computer-generated rat responds like an average rat but with built-in variables. Throughout the day, pairs of students at the lab’s eight stations put Sniffy through his paces.

“Students act as his trainer, setting up conditions with hundreds of potential variations,” says Astley. “Other practical benefits with Sniffy are that we don’t worry about allergies or animal abuse issues.”

Astley also designed an animal cognition laboratory in West Science Center, funded by Cornell’s Campbell McConnell Fellowship. “We work with pigeons there—visually oriented animals that respond to complicated stimuli involving pictures and objects,” she says. The lab is available to her “Animal Cognition” course plus students doing individual research.

A psychology student watches children through a one-way mirror in a Law Hall observation suite while professor Alice Ganzel (with children) supervises.

Law Hall additions have enhanced courses taught by social psychologist Bill Dragon as well. He transforms two observation suites into a personnel assessment center for his “Industrial and Organizational Psychology” class. Students rotate roles in various job interview and performance evaluation scenarios. One- and two-way observation mirrors allow other students to observe and offer feedback.

Counseling psychologist Carol Enns also videotapes her “Counseling and Psychotherapy” students as they practice elementary counseling skills with classmates. She teaches many core theory courses too.

“You have to deal with a wide range of theories as a counselor,” Enns explains. Rather than see students adopt Jungian, Freudian, Skinnerian, or other approaches to counseling, Enns encourages them to develop critical thinking tools “to explore various perspectives with an open mind.”

In addition, OCAAT’s flexible hours have made possible much of the research, projects, and outings offered. “OCAAT is a major reason I’m teaching here,” says Dragon. “I can design a whole course around a field study. Students read related theories in their text, then apply them to the real world. They come up with their own hypothesis, design a study, collect data, and write up their results.”

Developmental psychologist Alice Ganzel has her “Child Psychology” class spend up to six hours a week studying children in a daycare or elementary setting. “Students write up a systematic observation report that charts a variety of behaviors—for example, social, cognitive, and language development,” she says.

One-Course-At-A-Time facilitates in-depth internships as well. Ganzel has supervised interns working with at-risk teens at Lutheran Social Services and at a hospital investigating allegations of sexual abuse. Students met with clients and created an outreach educational program.

Even the department’s senior seminar benefits from OCAAT. “It gives students a flavor for what they will find in graduate school,” Ganzel explains. “Students do a tremendous amount of reading, organizing, and writing on a topic of their choice. They receive lots of oneon- one attention, but the course is still intense, demanding.”

In most Cornell psychology courses, says Astley, “there’s time for extensive discussion and evaluation of research relevant to a particular theory or concept. Students may be required to complete an empirical research project, either of their own design or one created by the instructor.” Lance Till, a senior from Maquoketa, Iowa, is happy to comply. In courses such as “Social Psychology” and “Industrial and Organizational Psychology,” he valued “opportunities for practical experience, as opposed to concentrating solely on theories and concepts.”

Many courses overlap the faculty’s research activities. For example, Ganzel’s doctoral studies contributed to a course she designed this spring, titled “Emotions: Understanding the Passions.” During her dissertation research, Ganzel discovered that before the 1980s, most models portraying adolescent decision-making all but ignored the role of emotions. Instead, they were based on logical, step-by-step models for weighing positive and negative outcomes. Her course examines various ways that emotions can impact behavior throughout a human’s life.

Enns spent part of a sabbatical in Japan and Korea, researching multicultural issues about gender and feminism and how they affect indigenous approaches to counseling. Her findings will help update both the book she authored, Feminist Theories and Feminist Psychotherapies, and her “Multicultural Psychology,” “Personality Theories,” and “Counseling and Psychotherapy” courses.

Department chair Bill Dragon says the flexibility of One-Course-At-ATime makes possible much of the research, projects, and field trips offered by the department.

“An incredible amount of new research and theory has come out, especially regarding diversity,” Enns reports. “I never teach the same course exactly the same way.”

Dragon has incorporated his main research interest into another interactive course, “Intimate Relationships.” “For the past 10 years I’ve studied dating and mating preferences,” he says. Analyzing scores of national and international newspaper personal ads, plus Internet personals, Dragon and his students have evaluated what’s regarded as an equitable trade of physical looks, age, and financial resources between men and women and homosexual couples. In addition, Dragon’s recent “Social Psychology” class conducted research at a culturally diverse mall in Chicago.

Faculty involvement also attracts and keeps psychology students. During the past year Jaclyn Peterson, a junior from Bloomington, Minn., gained “invaluable experience” working with Dragon on his dating preferences research. “We’re trying to determine cultural differences between Germany and America and to detect the extent to which evolution and culture each shape an individual’s preferences,” she says. “I’ve been able to get graduate school experience, and the project has increased my interest in research and statistics.”

These many endeavors support the department’s focus on empirically based research and theories. “I’m not as interested in my students learning specific facts,” maintains Astley, “as in their ability to critically evaluate concepts they encounter, particularly in the media and popular literature.”

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