News & Updates

Allegheny Professor Emeritus Shares New-Age Vision in Off-Broadway Show

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Hold it and picture a field of poppies glistening in the sunlight among the rolling green hills. You are peaceful. You are floating among the clouds. Now exhale slowly and feel the love.

Joshua Searle-White has dropped plenty of coin to hear gurus share visions like this in workshop settings through the years. In the process he developed a love-hate relationship with the self-help and new-age movements — some of the philosophies and practices might seem strange and nonsensical, he says, but by the end of each weekend, he’s glad he stuck it out.

Joshua Searle-White rehearses his one-person stage production “The Weekend Workshop.” (Photos Courtesy Heather Curtis)

Searle-White, professor emeritus of psychology at Allegheny College, explores that relationship in a one-person stage production that he will preview in Meadville on October 26 before taking it to the bright lights of New York City in an off-Broadway show on November 3.

The play is called “The Weekend Workshop,” and it’s the story of a man who is pressured into going to a workshop because he is told he needs to “find himself.” Searle-White describes the show as “simultaneously a scathing critique of and a love letter to the self-help and new-age movements.”

“The new-age movement is low-hanging fruit,” says Searle-White, who retired in 2018 after 22 years of teaching at Allegheny. “It’s easy to make fun of it, but at the same time I love it.”

In “The Weekend Workshop,” the hero confronts the question: “What is the difference between something that is just goofy and something that is utterly profound?” The 90-minute production includes energetic staging, clever wordplay and lots of physical comedy.

Searle-White has behind-the-scenes assistance in the production from Dan Winston, a 2010 Allegheny graduate, who is the director; LeeAnn Yeckley, the technical director of Allegheny’s Playshop Theatre, who is the stage manager, and Noah Stape, a junior at Allegheny, who is the lighting operator.

“When Josh came to me with his idea for an original show and asked me to direct, I had no hesitations,” says Winston. “It’s unlike any other show I’ve ever worked on or seen. Josh performs it entirely on his own, splitting himself between seven unique and fully-realized characters. You’d think having only one actor on stage would make the show monotonous or that it would be difficult to have interactions between characters, but we worked really hard on fleshing out each character and blocking the show so that you feel like the characters are really alive in front of you, even when Josh is playing someone else.”

The show grew out of one of the courses Searle-White taught called “The Human Potential Movement,” and it takes on all sorts of new-age practices from eye-gazing to trust falls and cuddle puddles. Searle-White plays all the characters, which include the unnamed hero, Steve, Kip, Candy, Max, Star Thunder Hawk Flower (yes, that’s really what she calls herself!), and, of course, the Guru. “Everything that I make fun of in this play, I have done myself,” he says. “I love all of it. But I also resist it with my entire being. I sign up for workshops, but then when the time comes actually to go, I start making up excuses for why I shouldn’t or imagine all the other things I could be doing instead. But despite my resistance, and despite the many difficulties with these workshops, I keep going.”

The production in New York City is part of the three-month United Solo Theatre Festival, which features one-person shows and is the largest of its kind in the world. Searle-White and his crew will have 15 minutes to prepare the stage, 45 minutes for a technical rehearsal, 90 minutes for the play, and then 15 minutes to clear the stage. “It’s a real challenge,” he says.

Searle-White is not new to the stage, having appeared in some Meadville Community Theatre productions. He has also taught storytelling at Allegheny. “I’ve always loved the creative process. I’ve written stories and performed them for years, but I’ve never tried a full-length show until now,” he says. He currently is working on another play aimed at college students that will explore the issues of sexuality, relationships and consent, which will debut in Meadville in the spring of 2020.

“The Weekend Workshop” will be staged at 7 p.m. on Saturday, October 26, in the Montgomery Performance Space on Allegheny’s campus. The show is free and open to the public; the show is recommended for adults only (not suitable for children). The one-time staging off-Broadway will be held in Theatre Row at 410 West 42nd St. in New York City at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 3. The theater holds about 60 patrons, and admission will be $54.

In the meantime, take another deep breath. Feel the love. Namaste.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Allegheny Welcomes New Faculty

From a native of Italy who speaks five languages to a motocross enthusiast, Allegheny’s new faculty members bring many unique backgrounds and qualities to the campus classrooms in the fall of 2019. Let’s meet each of them briefly:

Kathryn BenderKathryn Bender
Assistant Professor of Economics

Kathryn Bender joins the Economics Department this fall and is helping students discover the economics of natural resources. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Centre College and her master’s and doctorate from the Ohio State University.

“I’m excited to start at Allegheny this fall,” says Bender. “I’m involved in several projects on consumer food-waste behavior and hope to find new avenues to explore at Allegheny around this topic.”

Her dissertation, “Date Labels and Food Waste: A study of the effect of label characteristics on food waste in the United States,” studies the confluence of environmental science, economics, and marketing in the food distribution ecosystem in the United States. She is also interested in exploring the effect of feminine hygiene programs in developing countries on the environment along with women’s empowerment, health, and education.

In her free time, Bender enjoys playing soccer, riding horses, and hanging out with her two dogs, Huck and Nala.

Bradley Burroughs '02Bradley Burroughs ’02
Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies

After graduating from Allegheny in 2002, Bradley Burroughs earned his master’s degree from Duke University Divinity School and his Ph.D. from Emory University. His first teaching job was at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. After resigning that position to attend to family needs, he taught for four years at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. “But I am thrilled to be back in Meadville and reconnecting to the Allegheny community,” he says.

His academic interests span a variety of theological and ethical thought. His most recent work has been in two areas. The first is Christian political ethics, which led to his first book, Christianity, Politics, and the Predicament of Evil: A Constructive Theological Ethic of Soulcraft and Statecraft. It has also led to other published pieces that assess practices of contemporary warfare. The second area of his recent work has been in how Christian thinkers have understood the concept of evil, which is the subject of his next book project.

Burroughs enjoys mountain biking, hiking, backpacking, and being outdoors generally, “or at least as much as I can do now with two kids in tow. Although not entirely unusual, one of my more surprising talents is juggling, which I learned from a hallmate in Baldwin during my first year at Allegheny.”

He also is proud that he was the first in his family to graduate from college.

Moira FlanaganMoira Flanagan
Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Moira Flanagan is a lifelong morris dancer, a form of traditional English folk/pub dancing. She is also the newest chemistry professor at Allegheny.

She has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City and a Ph.D. in biophysical sciences from the University of Chicago. Most recently, she was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Chemistry Department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Currently, her research combines biochemistry and physical chemistry techniques to understand the physical and photoprotective properties of heterogeneous biological pigments like melanin.

“My interest in the chemistry of biological systems also shapes how I teach,” Flanagan says. “I get excited to bring biological contexts into other fields of chemistry (as often as I can), but also emphasize the physical chemistry concepts (like entropy) in biochemistry topics.

“My teaching is based on the idea that everyone can learn science if they want to and I am here to help. I reject the idea that some people ‘get’ science and math and some people don’t,” Flanagan says. “One doesn’t need to be an expert in chemistry to critically analyze and problem-solve in a new context.”

Besides her affinity for chemistry, teaching and morris dancing, Flanagan enjoys cooking, especially fish and fresh pasta. “I also won a coloring contest in my local paper when I was 4, and actually still consider myself an amateur artist in drawing and cartooning.

Jessica Harris
Visiting Assistant Professor of History

Jessica Harris received her bachelor’s in history, master’s in Afro-American Studies, master’s in history, and Ph.D. in history, all from UCLA. She also held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto in the Department of Italian Studies. She taught at Santa Monica College as well as at the University of Toronto during her fellowship.

Her research focus is on the history of the 20th century United States and the World, Modern Italy, and Black Europe, “and I am particularly interested in gender and race, their intersection with material culture, and the subsequent effect on group identities,” Harris says.

Since she studies Italian culture, “I like to watch Italian films and listen to Italian pop music,” says Harris.

Her five minutes of fame occurred as a teenager, Harris says, “when my club soccer team and I appeared on an episode of Bette Midler’s sitcom ‘Bette’.”

Mahita KadmielMahita Kadmiel
Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology

Mahita Kadmiel has spent most of her life learning about human diseases, and she enjoys teaching students about how the human body works — or fails to work — in the event of a disease.

Kadmiel taught for two years as a visiting assistant professor at Colgate University. She is trained in biomedical sciences, completing postdoctoral training in molecular endocrinology at the National Institutes of Health. In addition, she holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular physiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a master’s degree in biology from Michigan Technological University, and a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and biochemistry and medical lab technology from Andhra University in India.

“My academic interest has always been in improving our understanding of the molecular basis of human diseases,” Kadmiel says. “Too little or too much of stress hormones (glucocorticoids) and changes in sex hormone levels (estrogen and testosterone) have been linked to vision problems.”

She is investigating the function of these hormones in the cornea and retina using rodent models and cells derived from human eyes. Kadmiel also is interested in studying the role of hormone-mimicking chemicals (more commonly called endocrine-disrupting chemicals) on ocular cells and tissues and how they might influence eye health.

Kadmiel incorporates her interest in various forms of art not only in the biology courses that she teaches, but also in her time outside the classroom and laboratory.

“I enjoy working on art projects and DIY projects along with my two kids,” she says. “This is my trick to get mom-time and hobby time in one shot!”

Douglas LumanDouglas Luman
Assistant Professor of Computer Science

Douglas Luman joins the Computer Science Department from a background in creative writing and composition. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts from Bradley University and his MFA is from George Mason University, where he studied poetry and was the Heritage Student Fellow in 2017. He taught in the University Writing Program at George Washington University.

“So, suffice to say, I am an interesting fit in computer science. The way I usually explain it is that all of my work is computational, even though it is done in a humanities-leaning context,” he says.

His MFA thesis, “Prodigy House,” was a computational investigation of an early literary algorithm (“Travesty”). His other work is all computationally based. “I essentially ‘write’ aided by software that I write and others (like Google Cloud tools — Translate, Speech to Text) that I use in conjunction with writing. During graduate school, I developed a computational constraint platform that I continue to run at

“One might say that my work is less from an academic background and more out of a discipline or practice,” Luman says.

Luman is also interested in approaches to computational pedagogy: that is, what do the humanities, writ-large, have to say about teaching computer science? “Is there some way that we can use humanities-based concepts/data to teach students what it means to be responsible for their code? I wonder if there’s some distinction here to remind both students and ourselves of the perennial lesson that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should,” he says.

He and his partner, the poet Jenni B. Baker, also run a book arts press called Container, where they produce other artists’ work in three-dimensional, novel forms, “which is to say as a gem tray of origami paper gems, etched glass bottles, or as cross-stitch kits, for example,” Luman says.

Rebecca OliverRebecca Oliver
Assistant Professor of Political Science

Rebecca Oliver received her bachelor’s degree from the Université de Montréal and her Ph.D. from Northwestern University. She arrives at Allegheny after teaching most recently at Murray State University in Kentucky and, prior to that, the University of Southern California.

Oliver’s research examines the politics of inequality with respect to labor markets and social policy in Europe. Substantive topics of her work include labor union strategies, collective bargaining institutions, public opinion, childcare policy and territorial inequalities in social policy.

She is currently completing revisions for her book, “Negotiating Differences: The Politics of Egalitarian Bargaining Institutions.” The book examines the following question: Why, in the face of common growing pressures toward greater liberalization and pay dispersion, are egalitarian bargaining institutions sustained or reconfigured in some instances and bluntly dismantled in others? Employing the cases of Italy and Sweden, the book studies developments in egalitarian collective bargaining institutions.

Oliver recently adopted a puppy named Griffin. “My interests of hiking, canoe camping, exploring and getting lost in new cities/towns, making cupcakes, skiing, playing tennis, attending live jazz concerts and visiting art galleries are currently taking a back seat to dog training,” she says.

Kelly PearceKelly Pearce
Instructor, Environmental Science & Sustainability

Kelly Pearce is a graduate of Juniata College, where she majored in wildlife conservation and minored in education. She received her master’s degree in applied ecology and conservation biology from Frostburg State University, and earned her Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Appalachian Laboratory.

She is a wildlife ecologist and conservationist with research interests at the intersection of ecological and social science, including the field of human dimensions of wildlife conservation. “I use quantitative and qualitative approaches to study how environmental, social, and policy factors influence wildlife populations and species distributions. I also strive to better understand approaches that mitigate conflict and encourage coexistence between people and wildlife,” she says. Pearce also serves on the Outreach and Conflict Resolution Task Force as a member of the IUCN Otter Specialist Group.

“My research has taken me to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, where I evaluated the ability of the river otter to serve as an aquatic flagship species for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” she says. “I have also been involved in a variety of wildlife ecology projects focused in western Maryland and West Virginia, including a study on eastern spotted skunks, Allegheny woodrats, and a variety of bat species.”

Pearce enjoys live music and spends much of her free time watching and traveling for shows, she says. Pearce also enjoys motorcycle journeys. “I rode my first motorcycle when I was 3 right into the back of the garage. I still love to ride on my parents’ farm in central Pennsylvania, and this past summer I earned three first-place finishes in a vintage cross-country motorcycle race series.”

Gaia RancatiGaia Rancati
Assistant Professor of Marketing and Neuromarketing in Economics

Gaia Rancati joins the Economics Department and will teach Principles of Marketing and Business and Managerial Economics during the fall semester.

Rancati is an experienced trainer and coach in both sales and customer experience specializing in retail, sales, team building, and management. She earned her Ph.D. in marketing and neuroeconomics as well as a bachelor’s degree in marketing from IULM University, and a master’s of leadership and management from Il Sole 24ORE Business School in Milan, Italy. She is a sought-after researcher and speaker in the field of neuromarketing where she applies the science of neuroeconomics for improving customer experience in the retail field with a focus on service encounters, sales transformation and artificial intelligence.

Lauren RudolphLauren Rudolph
Assistant Professor of Biology

Lauren Rudolph joins the Biology Department with undergraduate and graduate degrees as double-majors in neuroscience and psychology. She attended Washington and Lee University for her undergraduate education and Indiana University for her Ph.D. She completed her postdoctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles in neurobiology and neuroendocrinology, and then taught neuroscience as a visiting professor at Pomona College.

Rudolph’s research is generally focused on steroid hormones and how they act to drive certain behaviors, such as mammalian reproduction. Her wider interests include neuroendocrinology, hormones, reproduction, sex differences, and physiology.

“I am continually impressed with the ever-expanding range of steroid hormone effects,” says Rudolph, “and how hormones can alter behaviors. I study how hormones act in ‘non-traditional’ ways to change the shape and function of cells, tissues, and organisms.”

When traveling on planes, Rudolph says she tends to get into interesting conversations because she is often working on presentations about reproduction. She sees those discussions as part of her “unofficial outreach”: sharing her research with other people.

During her time at Washington and Lee University, Rudolph played volleyball on a team which won conference champions each year, earning a place in the NCAA tournament during her four years as an undergraduate. Besides volleyball, Rudolph also enjoys the outdoors, cheese, sarcasm, making up forced acronyms, animal fun facts, and March Madness.

“I am also skilled at removing the gonads of rodents (for research!),” she adds.

Rosita ScerboRosita Scerbo
Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish

Rosita Scerbo joins the Department of Modern and Classical Languages as a Spanish instructor. Her research interests include Latin American and Chicanx visual autobiography. This includes photography, cinema, paintings, murals, and digital art. She is also a specialist in Digital Humanities and Hispanic digital pedagogy tools.

Scerbo was born in Italy but has spent most of her life studying and working abroad. “I’m a heritage speaker of Spanish, as I learned Spanish in my community as a child before I dedicated my life to the Hispanic language and culture academically in school and in college.”

She taught Spanish and Italian language, literature, and culture at West Virginia University during her pursuit of a master’s degree and at Arizona State University while earning her doctorate. She also has taught Spanish in Sevilla, Spain, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, during study abroad and Spanish immersion programs. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Calabria in Italy.

“I speak five languages,” says Scerbo. “I went to dance school for many years, and I’m particularly passionate about Latin dances, including salsa, bachata, and merengue. My two daughters’ names — one is human and one is canine — are Sol and Luna, that is Spanish for sun and moon.”

Sarah StangerSarah Stanger
Assistant Professor of Psychology

Sarah Stanger joins Allegheny’s Psychology Department and also plans to provide assessment and treatment services to children and families in Meadville as she works toward clinical licensure. Stanger attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She says her time there “ignited my passion for contributing to a learning community like Allegheny.” Stanger then traveled cross-country to attend the University of Vermont, where she taught undergraduate courses and earned a joint Ph.D. in clinical and developmental psychology.

Most recently, Stanger was in Portland, Oregon, completing her predoctoral clinical internship. While there, she provided assessment, consultation, and treatment services for children and families in a hospital-based setting.

Stanger hopes to observe interactions between families and children in a laboratory setting while at Allegheny. “I am interested in understanding the development of adaptive stress responses — both physiological and behavioral — in children and adolescents,” says Stanger. “This includes examining how parenting and other contextual factors, such as family socioeconomic status, contribute to this development.”

Outside of her professional life, Stanger has competed in horseback riding, enjoys skiing and snowboarding, and has a love for college sports and theater. She anticipates learning to cross-country ski while in Meadville, as well as attending her students’ productions and sporting events.

Asmus TrautschAsmus Trautsch
Writer in Residence

Asmus Trautsch studied philosophy as a major and German literature (modern and medieval) as a minor at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, and at the University College London in Great Britain. In addition, he studied composition/music theory at the University of the Arts in Berlin. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at Humboldt University, spending a term as a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City. He has taught philosophy at the University of Dresden and has been a guest lecturer at other universities.

His research interests include contemporary poetry, philosophy of tragedy, philosophy of literature, philosophy of music, ancient Greek philosophy, aesthetics, and ethics.

“My interests lie in the arts, including fine arts, film and dance and in the ways in which the sciences and the arts work together for enabling understanding and new knowledge,” says Trautsch. “Also I’m passionately interested in how philosophy and literature can contribute to educating society and improving politics.”

Trautsch likes to engage in “entertaining dialogues with lots of curious questions,” bake cakes, conduct orchestras and play various musical instruments. He shares a fun fact from his past: “I once won second prize in a competition called ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ in Dresden.”

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

SONA Workshop Fri. 09/20

Attention all psychology and neuroscience comp students who plan to use SONA this year to recruit participants. Professor Lauren Paulson will hold a SONA workshop illustrating the basics you need to know to post your study and use the SONA system. It will take place on Friday, Sept 20th from 12:15 PM to 1:30 PM  in Carnegie 110. There will be pizza!

Please be aware this is a one-time workshop. If you cannot make it, you will need to use the resources on our AboutPsych page to learn how to use the system.
Please contact Professor Lauren Paulson if you have any questions.

Why Might People Not Seek Help for Mental Illness? Allegheny College Research Team Looks for Answers

Mental health problems are on the rise in the United States, but due to a variety of reasons, many people aren’t getting or seeking the help they need, says Allegheny Psychology Professor Monali Chowdhury.

Recognizing a lack of research on the subject, Chowdhury tasked students in her research group to study this phenomenon in the spring of 2019. Using a sample of 60 Allegheny students, they explored whether seeking help for mental-health issues among college students was related to their extent of knowledge about mental health — otherwise known as mental health literacy. In the fall of 2019, Chowdhury and her students are taking the research nationwide by conducting a voluntary online survey on a community sample to determine why people aren’t seeking help for their mental health challenges, such as severe depression and anxiety.

Professor Monali Chowdhury says mental health literacy research shows “not everybody is getting the treatment they need and that’s for a variety of reasons.”

“It’s a growing problem,” says Chowdhury. “Not everybody is getting the treatment they need and that’s for a variety of reasons, from not having insurance to the stigma of reporting mental health problems to a lack of resources. There is roughly one psychiatrist for every 500 people nationwide, statistics indicate.”

More than 43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year; that’s one in five adults in this country, according to statistics published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2019. These issues include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and anxiety disorders, among others. Yet, 60 percent of those people did not seek counseling or any other professional help for their issues due to low mental health literacy, which is a person’s ability to recognize, manage and cope with these disorders and other mental-health issues.

“As a society, we have to work through this taboo of reporting mental illness. You wouldn’t think twice about getting treatment for a sprained ankle, but many are reluctant to seek help for their depression or anxiety,” says Chowdhury. “There’s still a lot of misinformation and stigma out there about mental health issues.”

Chowdhury and her students decided to look at the issue of mental health literacy on the Allegheny campus last spring. Students collaborating on this project were Jade Allen ’21, Riley Sawyer ’22 and Alexis Jarvie ’22. “We found that there is definitely a correlation between mental health literacy and the willingness to seek help,” says Chowdhury.

Allegheny College summer research students present their work at ACRoSS luncheon, July 9, 2019. Photo by Ed Mailliard.
“Research of literature on the subject shows that age, ethnicity, income and level of education might be factors influencing a person’s decision to seek assistance for mental health problems,” says researcher Josephine Hughes ’22.

In addition, male students in this study had significantly lower scores on a questionnaire assessing attitudes toward seeking help, says student researcher Josephine Hughes ’22, who collaborated with Chowdhury on a continuation of this project during the summer. “Research indicates that men often don’t want to appear weak or unmasculine by seeking help for mental health problems,” Hughes says.

“Also,” Hughes continues, “research of literature on the subject shows that age, ethnicity, income and level of education might be factors influencing a person’s decision to seek assistance for mental health problems.”

Chowdhury and her students will be exploring these issues in a nationwide community sample as the project continues into the fall of 2019. They will seek to recruit participants across the nation through Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), which is a crowdsourcing website used to post surveys and obtain data. Some sample questions could be: “To what extent do you agree that a mental illness is a sign of personal weakness?” and whether people agree with statements like, “If I believed I was having a mental breakdown, my first inclination would be to get professional help.”

The research team will use the data to explore the relationship between different demographic variables and mental health literacy and how they impact the willingness to seek help for mental-health issues. A key question for these researchers is: What factors affect mental health literacy?

“Current knowledge doesn’t give us good answers. That’s why it requires more research,” says Hughes.

Adds Chowdhury: “I think the ultimate goal is to make mental health discussions more normative, to be able to identify segments of the population who are particularly stigmatized by mental illness and take strategic initiatives to improve mental health literacy.”

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Allegheny-Crawford LEGO Social Club Helps Children on the Autism Spectrum Build Social Skills, Friendships

A collaborative program at Allegheny College is helping area children and teens with social difficulties develop their communication skills and build friendships — LEGO brick by LEGO brick.

Allegheny-Crawford Lego Social Club“This club is very unique in the way that it uses the platform of LEGO projects to bring kids on the autism spectrum and with other forms of developmental disabilities to a setting where they are building something together,” says Chowdhury, assistant professor of psychology at Allegheny. “Through this platform, children can build some of the social skills and self-confidence that they are limited in, as part of their diagnosis.”

One Saturday a month during the winter and fall, children from the Penncrest School District gather in the college’s Carnegie Hall for the Allegheny-Crawford LEGO Social Club. They spend 90 minutes building LEGO projects together, interacting with each other, and presenting their work during the program, which is facilitated by Allegheny faculty Monali Chowdhury and students.

LEGO Club was first brought to this part of Pennsylvania by the Autism Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania in Erie in 2014. The Allegheny-Crawford site was started in February 2018 via Chowdhury’s collaboration with the Autism Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania and professionals of the Penncrest School District, including school psychologist Brittany Adkins.

“We had a definite need in Crawford County for a program like this for students on the autism spectrum.”

Brittany Adkins
School Psychologist
Penncrest School District

Parents in Crawford County can have difficulty finding social activities that children with developmental disabilities will engage with, says Adkins, who reached out to Chowdhury after learning of the professor’s expertise in autism research.

Says Chowdhury: “It is sometimes a struggle, because these children may not feel like they fit in — social interaction is out of their comfort zone, and they may not want to return to activities that are not of interest. But a LEGO-based program is a natural draw. Since it is something that children enjoy, it is easier for them to work on some of the social pieces that they would not have been comfortable with otherwise.”

The Allegheny-Crawford LEGO Social Club held its first meeting in winter 2018 with more than two dozen K–10 students — twice the number that organizers had expected to sign up. Attendance has continued to grow; about 50 children have participated in LEGO Club thus far.

Creating Academic and Community Connections

Allegheny-Crawford Lego Social ClubAllegheny students serving as research assistants have played a key role in the program’s success, Chowdhury says. They contribute to the planning of the program, assist with preparations each week, and interact directly with children during the Saturday sessions.

Junior Cassie O’Brien has worked with the LEGO social club for two years. The psychology major says the program has given her a new perspective on research.

“All of my past research experiences have been in the lab — giving out questionnaires, assessing data. The social club has really shown me how different research can be. You can get involved and see the aspect that you were researching right in front of you. That’s really powerful,” says O’Brien, who is minoring in communication arts and political science.

Brent Temeng, a 2018 Allegheny graduate, was as an undergraduate research assistant with the club during his senior year. Temeng says he appreciates the opportunity Allegheny gave him to pursue his interest in serving the community through an opportunity outside of his academic major — economics — and his minors — computer science and studio art.

“This LEGO project allowed me to be a part of something — not to just be a student, but be a volunteer for the community I lived in,” Temeng says. “I think that’s a beautiful part about it too.”

Building on a Successful Start

During a session of the LEGO social club, participants first build on their own and then move on to more structured group building time. The program concludes with three children volunteering to talk about projects they brought in from home and field questions from their peers. Chowdhury and the student research assistants say they have seen definite progress in children as they attend more sessions of the club.

Allegheny-Crawford Lego Social ClubChowdhury points to participants who initially may have worked at a table by themselves but now have become more likely to work in groups. “They have a conversation — however basic that conversation may be — but still a starting point for that whole social reciprocity piece that is one of our goals,” she says.

That interaction helps to foster spontaneous teamwork and reinforce the importance of communication and problem solving among participants, Chowdhury says. Neurotypical siblings and friends also can attend the club, which provides opportunities for peer mentoring.

The questions that participants ask each other during the sharing session also have become less formulaic and more genuine, O’Brien says. For example, children may at first ask only basic questions such as “How long did that take to build?” But as they become more comfortable, O’Brien says the inquiries have reflected a deeper level of interaction — such as “What does that piece do?” or “How did you think of that idea?”

And the stories that children share about their projects show an immense amount of creativity and abstract thought, Chowdhury says, attributes sometimes not associated with children on the autism spectrum.

Allegheny-Crawford Lego Social Club“Even as a scientist who has been involved in autism spectrum work for years, what has impressed and amazed me is the level of imagination in the stories behind the models that the children tell,” she says.

Adkins, the Penncrest school psychologist, says that “the turnout has been awesome and that she has been “really pleased with the early friendships that are blooming.”

Adkins also notes that parents stay in a waiting area during the club. They “find community with one another, which is a hidden benefit of the program,” she says. Some even have arranged LEGO-building playdates outside of the club for their children — supporting the goal of fostering friendships.

Chowdhury says that evidence of the program’s success includes qualitative feedback from parents. For example, parents have shared that their children tell them they “won’t miss” a session of the club and choose it over other activities. Another parent shared that “LEGO Club has helped us become connected with the thoughts of our bright boy and for that, my family is eternally grateful.” Quantitative data collection continues this semester in the form of structured observation of the children.

This assessment research data will help organizers improve the club in the future. “Clearly, there’s a need for the program as evidenced by the response we have received from families, and we’re looking forward to building on the work we started,” Chowdhury says.

Appropriate permissions have been obtained to use images of Allegheny-Crawford Lego Social Club members.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Service and Philanthropy Become a Habit, Allegheny Graduates Say

It’s been less than five years since Trevor and Michelle Colvin proudly wore their caps and gowns at Commencement on Bentley Lawn, but they’ve already been making an impact on the students that followed them at Allegheny College, thanks to a commitment to service and philanthropy they have woven into their lives.

Trevor and Michelle Colvin are 2014 graduates.

Trevor and Michelle have remained engaged with Allegheny alumni, staff, students and prospective students in a variety of volunteer roles, including keeping in touch with former classmates, appearing on career panels and participating in the Gator Greetings program.

“Allegheny was our home for four years where we made our best friends and memories,” says Michelle. “We chose to keep our relationship strong with Allegheny post-graduation by serving as class agents and by helping to organize our Class of 2014 fifth-year reunion.”

Despite being busy in their educational pursuits and careers, the Colvins have put serious thought into their philanthropic priorities. “We make decisions based on life experiences,” says Trevor. “We give to organizations that we feel have helped us become who we are as well as organizations that are doing good in our community.”

The former Michelle Holcomb is in her fifth year of graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing a doctorate in cognitive psychology, studying how aspects of a reading context influence language comprehension. Trevor is a senior analyst at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. His work focuses on the integrations of newly acquired hospitals and physician groups, as well as the executive reporting of key revenue cycle analytics.

They met in their first year at Allegheny, married in 2016, and currently live in Pittsburgh with their “fur children,” Dolly (a calico cat) and Nala (a German Shepherd dog). While at Allegheny, Trevor played football and was a managerial economics major and a religious studies minor. Michelle played soccer and was a psychology and biology double major.

“We were both four-year athletes at Allegheny so a lot of our focus is dedicated to athletics,” Michelle says. “We also got involved with alumni during our senior year as part of the senior class gift committee. From there, we saw the opportunity to continue serving Allegheny.

“We hope to get others excited about supporting the College soon after they graduate,” she says. “There is often a misconception that valued donors are only those who give the highest amounts. But we’ve learned that serving is a process, and it starts by getting involved as soon as possible.”

The Colvins say their current philanthropic priorities are Allegheny College, their church and the United Way of Pittsburgh. “Start small. Any form of help serves a cause,” Trevor says. “It’s not just monetary help; time is a big donation. Identify causes that align with your beliefs and make positive impacts on society. The habit becomes a fulfilling lifestyle.”

Now that they are cultivating success in their community, the Colvins say they are believers in a liberal arts education. “Our classes and degrees from Allegheny didn’t teach us everything,” says Michelle, “but they helped prepare us to learn anything.”

Source: Academics, Publications & Research