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MCCC Students Focus on Impact of Technology in April Honors Conference


Maggie Carrell, Sofia Stepanoff, Naomi Kinnamon and Natalie Kinnamon drew a crowd with their poster presentation "How Technology Affects the Developing Child."

Dr. Brandon Shaw, MCCC's new vice president for academic affairs, called the conference one of the first steps on students' academic journeys.

Sofia Stepanoff and Michael Jack were in teacher mode as they explained physics principles and the way they have shaped our understanding of the world.

Members of the Phi Theta Kappa National Honor Society, many of whom take honors courses, greeted friends and encouraged potential new members to join.

Students and faculty stand side by side as they examine presenters' work.

Student Ryan Hammond, far left, attended the event with fellow Honors Calc III classmates. Professor of Mathematics Richard Porter is pictured at center.

West Windsor, N.J. – On April 6, students in the Honors Program at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) made good on the program’s slogan of “Creativity, Engagement, Impact” as they took the lead in a conference entitled “Technology: How Is It Changing Our Lives?” The event, which was held at the MCCC Conference Center, included a poster session, two panel presentations, a roundtable discussion, and a symposium discussion.

According to Dr. Bettina Caluori, Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program, the students chose the theme and participated on a voluntary basis.

“There were no grades or classroom assignments associated with this conference,” Caluori noted. “These students have shown themselves to be real leaders who are taking on academic challenges that have relevance in the community. They are driven by their academic passion and career aspirations.”

In his opening remarks, Dr. Brandon Shaw, the college’s new vice president for academic affairs, addressed the students. “This event shows your talent and your dedication and is just the first step as you proceed towards your bachelor’s and graduate degrees," he said, adding that the conference reminded him of events he participated in as a graduate student. "It's a testimony to what high achievers at Mercer can do.”

The Mercer Honors Program received an MCCC Innovation Grant to host the event.

Student Zachary Kurnellas, who led a roundtable discussion on "Net Neutrality: Equality and the Internet," said he saw the conference as an opportunity to connect with others who are curious about his topic. "It’s easy to get lost in the crowd at college, but not at Mercer. I feel intellectually fulfilled. The professors are great,” he said.

The complex topic of net neutrality was just one of the stimulating topics student investigated for the conference -- from science and sociology to psychology and literature. Three groups participated in the poster session that kicked off the event. One project sought to address “How Technology Affects the Developing Child.” Presented by students Maggie Carrell, Naomi Kinnamon, Natalie Kinnamon, and Sofia Stepanoff, the idea originated with an honors psychology course that three of the four had taken together.

Said Carrell, “We can all relate to this topic. We use technology every day. And we will need to consider it when we eventually have our own families.” In a true display of teamwork, they divided the project into four components: conducting a survey, collecting data, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions.

A second student, Ewelina Krzywda, tackled a topic very much in the news today. Krzywda said that her project, “The Negative Effects of Social Media on Self-Confidence, Self-Esteem and Personal Identity,” was inspired by her 10-year-old niece. “It’s such a different world for her, even from when I grew up,” she said. “People, especially parents, need to understand how harmful social media can be to the developing mind.”

Krzywda noted that the brain does not fully mature until around the age of 25, while many social media users are far younger than that. “Their processes of logical thinking and decision-making are not fully formed,” she noted. And, her research revealed that frequent use of social media may be linked to higher levels of anxiety, decreased social skills, and loss of identity.

Taking her conference moment to focus on literature, Megan Connor presented a poster project that sprang from her reading of the Colson Whitehead novel The Underground Railroad. This harrowing slave narrative with a female protagonist has garnered top prizes from critics and readers in recent years. Connor wanted to answer the question:“How Does Literature Represent Mother–Daughter Relationships? Are These Representations Acceptable to the 21st Century Mind?” In her analysis, she assessed whether the novel deserves to represent the picture of female slaves.

Panel presentations included Grant Gallagher's “Tracking Dollar Bills Across the US: How We Can Use Our Currency to Identify Human Travel Patterns.” He meticulously demonstrated how data from the “Where’s George” currency tracking website can be utilized to analyze human travel patterns throughout the year.

A second panel presentation was led by Michael Jack and Sofia Stepanoff, who discussed “Latest Physics Research and How It Changes Our Worldview.” Describing the remarkable breakthroughs over the past century in the fields of physics, astronomy, and cosmology, Stepanoff observed, “Researchers in these fields have given us knowledge on how strange and counter-intuitive the world we live actually is. It’s research that has changed our worldview as a species and our perceived place in the cosmos.”

The final discussion, “One Small Gene Can Make One Long Chain,” was led by Austin Chee and Noah Daniecki, who noted that genetic engineering is a subject of ongoing debate in the scientific community. Said Chee, “As genetic engineering is becoming more of a reality, we have to ask whether we are progressing further than morality should allow us to go.” Chee and Daniecki pointed to examples such as insulin-producing bacteria, golden rice able to produce beta carotene, goats with the capabilities to produce spider silk and anti-clotting proteins, and even humans who are being treated with a retrovirus to alter the genome of defective components.

Student Ryan Hammond, who is studying to be a software engineer and plans to transfer to Rutgers University, attended the event to see what he could learn from his honors classmates. He met up with several friends who are challenging themselves in Honors Calculus III, taught by Professor Richard Porter. “Of course my calculus course is challenging,” Hammond said. “But that’s the point – to take courses at Mercer that will enable us to keep up with students at four-year colleges when we transfer. The professors teach at a high level. This is a great community college.”

The Honors Program at Mercer provides seminar-style course options for some general education and program-specific degree requirements. Classes are small, student-driven and discussion-based, with an emphasis on critical thinking skills. Courses are offered in a range of disciplines including biology, business and technology, chemistry, liberal arts and humanities, and mathematics.

More about the Honors Program at Mercer is available at www.mccc.edu/honors.

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