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Community Engaged Research Projects

Throughout their first three and a half years, students at the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt have partnered with numerous research-based organizations to tackle local questions in a didactic and experiential manner. In the final semester, the Community Engaged Research Projects are a way for our students to give back to their community using the unique scientific skill set that they have acquired during their tenure at Vanderbilt.

Projects are student-driven and output-driven, are facilitated by members of the Vanderbilt and Nashville community, and have made a positive impact on our community.

Examples of projects have included:

  • Working with Vanderbilt Pediatrics to tackle childhood obesity in Nashville
  • Working with the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and the Environment to quantify nitrate leaching in residential lawns
  • Working with Nashville Health Department to evaluate the effectiveness of their bike share, community gardens and animal wellness programs.

Students have presented their results at many different types of public forums including scientific conferences, Metro Nashville School Board meetings, and the Earth Day Festival.

Past projects have received accolades at research competitions, have helped form the backbone for larger-scale research projects, and have informed legislation and decision-making by the Metro government.

You can read below about our most recent CERPs.


Class of 2021 Projects

Biomedical Research Awareness DayBiomedical Research Awareness Day (BRAD) is an initiative devoted to educating students and the public about the importance of biomedical research and the humane use of animals. The initiative was created by laboratory veterinarian Dr. Logan France as apart of Americans for Medical Progress (AMP). High school students from the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV) created new materials for the public and a presentation on biomedical research with an emphasis on COVID-19 research. The students’ target audience was high school students with an interest in pursuing a career in STEM or the medical field. They hosted a presentation through Zoom to celebrate Virtual BRAD. Over 50 students from Hume-Fogg, KIPP collegiate, Hillsboro, Martin Luther King, Valor, homeschool, and STEM Prep high school attended.The exigency of the COVID-19 pandemic inspired the students to spotlight the key role of animals in creating vaccines. Students designed the sticker shown above with the timely message that animal research saves lives and is essential to developing safe and effective vaccines. The design was adapted into a coloring page as well, and it can be found on BRAD’s website along with other material.The students began the presentation by sharing background information about the field of biomedical research, animal research, and BRAD’s purpose. They elaborated on the animals’ contributions to medicine by playing a game of “Diagnose This” where the audience diagnosed a case of smallpox and polio. They learned about Edward Jenner’s research with cows and Jonas Salk’s work with rhesus monkeys to create the smallpox and polio vaccine. Then, the audience members submitted their personal stories about how animal research had impacted their lives to BRAD connected their stories about health and survival with the animals that helped create the medical advancements, and on April 15th, BRAD shared the stories on their social media. Following this activity, the students began a discussion on the ethics of animal research and addressed the misinformation spread by anti-animal research organizations. This was important because disapproval can cause the end of animal research. The students also highlighted the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) and theirlegal oversight to protect animals involved in biomedical research. At the end, the audience played an online trivia game of Kahoot that tested their understanding from the presentation, and the top winners earned prizes. Animal research is an important topic to discuss with the general public because it is fundamental to medical advancements. The students’ BRAD presentation and illustration engaged the STEM oriented high school audience and educated them on the impact of animals

Grundy County Environmental Justice Project

The Grundy County Environmental Justice Project is a community-driven initiative originally started by residents of Grundy County, Tennessee, a rural East Tennessee countyoutside of Chattanooga. The project aims to help raise awareness about cancer prevalence in Grundy County and possible links to environmental issues. This project is now affiliated with Vanderbilt University, and as such, engaged with a group of students from the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV) program.

As part of the collaboration with SSMV from 2020 to 2021, two deliverables were set as goals. The first goal was to develop a set of surveys that would eventually allow Grundy County residents to report any health or environmental concerns. Five surveys, ranging from basic health information to a more detailed Cancer Report, were created using Vanderbilt’s RedCap tool. User accessibility and functionality were a major goal for both the surveys and the website. Because of this, features such as larger buttons, audio-based questions, and field notes were incorporated into the surveys. It also adapts branching and piping, techniques that help the surveys flow, to enhance the survey taker’s experience. Additionally, a logo was created, as shown in Figure 1. The logo is shaped as the outline of Grundy County, set over a backdrop of a local state park. This logo aims to bring familiarity to the project and promote participation. Currently, residents would be able to register for the surveys using our email list.

The second deliverable was the WIX-based website. We successfully constructed a website that will house the information for the project as well as the different ways to get involved. The website is navigated through the menu bar which has 5 different items. The first is the “About Us” item which contains a summary of how the project began. The “Get Involved” item contains information about how to start answering surveys to help by registering for a mailing list. The third item is “Resources”, which is used to educate the community on possible hazards such as radon or lead. The “News” section highlights local news and personal testimonials relevant to the project. Finally, the “Coming…” area is a temporary section to show what is in store for the future of the project, including future mapping of reported concerns. The website is currently under Dr. Brooke Ackerly’s ownership.

Overall, the partnership with the SSMV, under the tutelage of Dr.Brooke Ackerly and Dr. Chris Vanags, was able to complete a set of surveys and a website that will aid in the collection of data from community members. After communicating our progress with community members from Grundy County, we have successfully implemented pertinent involvement from future community members who wish to contribute, paving a way for collaborative research.

Harpeth Conservancy: Educating Families About River Health Through an Interactive Game

Harpeth Conservancy (formerly known as the Harpeth River Watershed Association) is an organization that promotes community awareness and action to maintain clean and healthy river ecosystems throughout Middle Tennessee. The Conservancy, much like the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV), has a mission of not only protecting Middle Tennessean rivers, but to educate and inform the public about our waterways in the hopes of preserving them for the next generation to enjoy. To fulfill this mission, we designed an educational and engaging board game that allows children and families to learn about the Harpeth River in a fun and informative way. 

We worked closely with Harpeth Conservancy to develop the game to be accessible for all ages, teach players about the rivers in the Greater Nashville Area, and communicate to our audience how their everyday decisions can affect our waterways, all under ten minutes. Through strategic planning and coordinated discussions, we sought to design a game that fulfilled all four of these requirements. The result is a game that has players progressing around the board answering trivia questions and making decisions that impact the health of the river. 

We developed our game to have three primary components: a game board, playing cards, and a slider to determine river health. The game board is designed to be played in a linear fashion and is shaped like the Harpeth River. Spaces have designated trivia, decision, and event card titles. To adapt the game for Harpeth Conservancy educational events and to satisfy the Conservancy’s time requirements, we designed the game so that it can be played by a single person. Additionally, our game includes “basic” or “advanced” options, which allows seamless mobility from playing solo to a multiplayer experience. There are three types of cards: trivia cards, which include questions based on facts and history surrounding rivers in the Greater Nashville Area; decision cards, which consist of choices based on real life situations people face on a daily basis that have an effect on the well being of rivers and streams; and event cards, which present scenarios that can impact the river depending on the decisions chosen prior to the event. Lastly, our game features a 3D printed moveable slider that helps visually convey the river’s health based on past decisions and the impact of events that the river has endured. These three elements all come together to form an educational game for all ages to be used by the Conservancy. 

Our collaboration with Harpeth Conservancy has led to a completed and playable board game for the whole family, focused on and made with the Harpeth River in mind. By creating a game that is easy and engaging to play, children and their families can learn about their local rivers, understand the impact of their decisions on the environment, and have the opportunity to get to know Harpeth Conservancy a little bit better.

Stem Cell Visual Art Project

Stem Cell research has often been misrepresented and stigmatized in general media. Many people unfamiliar with stem cell research do not have a clear understanding of its benefits in our lives. For that reason, it’s very important for scientists to reeducate the general population about stem cells and eliminate those harmful assumptions that could slow progress. With this project, students at the SSMV partnered with the Lippmann Lab, a laboratory in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering that investigates neurovascular engineering and therapeutic design with stem cells, and Mr. Noah Saterstrom, a local professional artist, to explain the benefits of stem cells through an art medium. 

Thanks to a previous CERP group of students, Mr. Saterstrom had already developed a comic strip for the Lippmann lab. This strip depicted the process of cell dedifferentiation in which skin cells are transformed into iPSCs, or Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, and compared the process to recycling. The students from this year’s CERP group took the comic strip and created a short video. In this video, the process of dedifferentiation was explained in a narrative-like structure, introducing two characters, a man and a grandmother, that each served as springboards to connect dedifferentiation with recycling in simple terms.  

As an additional contribution to the Lippmann lab, the SSMV students sought to create a second original illustration focusing on a specific application of stem cells. They decided to explain the need and implementation of stem cells in Parkinson’s Disease treatment. To achieve this, the students first developed the main points necessary to introduce stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease. It was important to show the way people were affected by the disease, how their current medications managed symptoms but failed to fight the root cause, and how stem cells are able to fill that gap. The SSMV students then created their own descriptions and brainstormed many possible illustrations in order to give Mr. Saterstrom a better idea of their end goal. Once a template had been created and the main points outlined, Mr. Saterstrom began drawing initial sketches of the desired illustration. Throughout the process, the SSMV students met with the Lippmann lab, Dr. Deweese, and Mr. Saterstrom to provide feedback on these sketches. With each new set of feedback, Mr. Saterstrom created a new version of the illustration and it began to develop into the final product. Since the goal of the illustration was to best represent the main points with little text needed, most of the discussions of feedback revolved around the best visual approach to show concepts such as neuron death, dopamine levels, and stem cell therapy.  

After many weeks of developing new versions of the illustration, the final products were decided upon. As a complement to the illustrations, the SSMV students also wished to include helpful descriptive text and decided on two separate versions. The first version (pictured above) would include more text, using simple language, to serve better as a stand-alone image. While the second image included less text, with more technical language, to be a visual aid of a larger presentation. The video and illustrations created by this CERP group can be used by the Lippmann lab during presentations or community events to help people connect with the vision of stem cells. Lastly, future groups can break up the large illustration and create a variety of stand-alone forms of media, including an animated video.   

The CERP group, Juliana Shoun and Kartik Rachakonda, would like to thank Dr. Ethan Lippmann, PI of the Lippmann Lab, members of the Lippmann Lab, Mr. Noah Saterstrom, Dr. Menton Deweese, and the SSMV for providing the group with the opportunity and for sponsoring this project.

Tennessee Environmental Council Compost Project

The Tennessee Environmental Council (TEC) is an organization devoted to improving the environment and public health. Although their topics of focus span from pollinator gardens to tree-planting, one of their central goals is to involve the community in their vision. In this project, the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt partnered with the TEC to help fulfill this goal through the creation of lesson plans designed to educate students about sustainability. These lesson plans covered three different topics, and each topic was divided into a lesson outline, a Google slides presentation, and a corresponding video. With these lesson plans, we hope to extend the mission of the TEC to local schools and communities and to empower students to adopt sustainable practices in their own lives.  

The curriculum developed through this initiative included lessons covering three separate sustainability topics: zero waste initiatives, recycling, and composting. The “Zero Waste Initiative” lesson aimed to inform students about the various types of waste and pollutants that we are each individually responsible for on a daily basis. By establishing the pressing environmental issues caused by our waste production, the lesson was able to emphasize why pushing for “zero waste” must be a priority in every local community. The other two lessons in the curriculum, “Home Recycling” and “Compost at Home”, both aimed to explain the processes and science behind two of the most productive sustainable practices that one can adopt. These two lessons also taught students how to adopt these practices correctly on their own, covering the common mistakes that are made when attempting to adopt each. 

Supplemental materials, including lesson outlines, activity plans, and instructional videos, were also created to accompany each of the curriculum’s three lessons. For the “Zero Waste Initiative” lesson, the accompanying instructional video focused on sustainable swaps, or products that are reusable or otherwise more environmentally friendly than traditional disposable products. This video demonstrates examples of common sustainable swaps around the house, with the intent of showing viewers the simplicity and facility of adopting sustainable practices. The “Recycling” lesson’s video gives an overview of how to recycle at home, with a focus on clearing misconceptions about non-recyclables. This video provides a visual example of sorting recyclables, and covers recycling the most common difficult-to-recycle items. The “Compost at Home” instructional video provided a plain overview of what composting is and explained how the composting process works. This video also included a demonstration of how to set up a simple, cheap composting system at home. 

Recently, the “Zero Waste Initiative” lesson was piloted with a group of 7th and 8th grade students in the encore program at Bellevue Middle School. This presentation sparked discussion about sustainable practices among both the students and teacher, and will ideally provide an example for future presentations of this content. The activities included in the zero waste lesson plan allowed students to reflect on their own daily habits and think about ways to reduce waste in their day-to-day lives. We hope that this curriculum will continue to be implemented among schools in Nashville, as well as Tennessee as a whole, so that the ideas of zero waste, recycling, and composting can be spread to students across the state.

Tennessee Environmental Council: Pollinator Garden Curriculum Development and Pollinator Habitats across Tennessee

The Tennessee Environmental Council (TEC) is a non-profit organization that works to rehabilitate environmental sites in Tennessee while promoting community involvement and volunteerism. With the same passion for biodiversity conservation, the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV) partnered with the TEC. The main goals of this year’s partnership were to develop a curriculum regarding pollinator gardens and their pertinence in maintaining biodiversity and fighting climate change. Ultimately, the goal is to pilot this curriculum in high schools all across the state of Tennessee. Additionally, we created videos modeling various pollinator garden habitats to inspire and involve the local community. 

Pollinator gardens offer a unique way to fight climate change and help curb global emissions due to their ability to store carbon via the roots and soil of pollinator species. Pollinator gardens capture carbon and may be implemented in varying locations and habitats with ease. We developed four mini-lessons centered around pollinators with the goal of engaging youth in climate action, bringing awareness to environmental issues and inequities, and helping students become inspired and empowered to dream of a brighter, more equitable planet.  Further, this curriculum seeks to bring representative content into schools, helping students envision themselves as scientists, advocates, and world-changers.  

The first mini-lesson covers fundamental concepts of sustainability, an introduction to the green movement, how pollinator gardens promote biodiversity and help alleviate the effects of climate change, and promotes environmental justice and the idea that youth can make a substantial positive. The second mini-lesson helps students identify how pollinators aid in the process of food production, understand the role pollinators play in ecosystems, identify ecosystem services that pollinators provide, and recall different examples of interdependence that pollinators have with other organisms. The third mini-lesson encourages students to identify ways in which they may participate in pollinator health and preservation via the creation of pollinator gardens. Students are guided through the process of how to make a pollinator garden, either as a full-sized pollinator garden, window box, or pollinator house. Students are also encouraged to join Tennessee Environmental Council’s Generate Some Buzz initiative, which aims to plant thousands of square feet of pollinator habitats across Tennessee each year. The fourth mini-lesson helps students identify common sources of greenhouse gases and how they contribute to global warming, and helps students examine how photosynthesis and carbon capture via soil can help fight climate change. All lessons include engaging activities such as an evaluation of student ecological footprints and identification of ways to live more sustainably.  

Another aspect of this project was to present engaging videos on how to develop a variety of pollinator habitats in a fun, accessible, and engaging manner. Three varying pollinator habitats were developed within SSMV students’ homes. There was a pollinator garden created in a front yard, construction of a pollinator window box, and construction of a simple a pollinator house. Videos like this offer a window for engagement with citizens who may not typically engage with climate-related education. 

As part of TEC’s overall mission and outlined goals for the Generate Some Buzz program, they hope to establish pollinator gardens in as many areas of the state as possible, including the city’s right of ways. We used a parcel viewer to delineate right of ways in East Nashville in the vicinity of Stratford High School to map out potential pollinator garden development with local homeowners and created information to advertise the vision of a large pollinator habitat among this right-of-way. Despite the SSMV Class of 2021’s completion with this project, TEC’s Generate Some Buzz project initiative, along with the pollinator curriculum and East Nashville Pollinator Corridor development, still have many fascinating and beneficial directions to blossom in!

Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research

The Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research (VCAR) conducts research and promotes outreach to adolescents concerning addiction. It is crucial that adolescents understand the deleterious effects of addiction as their brain is in a key phase of development and is uniquely vulnerable to developing a substance abuse disorder. The adolescent brain is vulnerable to addiction due to its heightened plasticity combined with the lack of development in the prefrontal cortex, which cannot tame the strengthening of the reward pathway that comes with repeated drug use. As the U.S. faces a substantial opioid epidemic, Tennessee is one of the most impacted states with more than six million opioid prescriptions and 19.9 opioid involved overdose deaths per 100,000 persons in 2018. Rural counties in TN are especially affected by this crisis due to decreased educational attainment and access to mental health care services, as well as increased rates of poverty and unemployment. 

In an attempt to raise awareness for addiction, we had two main objectives; to create an engaging, accessible, and informative zoom presentation about addiction and to create a 3 part TikTok series about how addiction impacts the brain and body, paired with treatments for addiction. We created a zoom presentation which informs middle to high school students about how addiction affects the brain, why it’s classified as a brain disease, and discussed further the various treatments for addiction along with the various pitfalls that come with treatment. Near-peer education was specifically utilized as part of a broader attempt to better understand the effectiveness of this brand of outreach.  This zoom presentation was adapted so it can be used for both online and in-person students and is paired with an instructional guide to increase accessibility for interested educators.  

Our second output included a three-part TikTok series which discussed the neurobiological effects of alcohol, physiological effects and why it is classified as a disease, and treatment options. All TikTok videos were one minute in length and were stop-motion videos. The stop motion videos were edited to include a voiceover and background music to make it more engaging to our TikTok audience. We chose to post our videos on TikTok due to the percentage of teens on the app (25% of users are teenagers) and due to the algorithm which makes it easier to reach a larger audience. Although our TikTok series had an average of (amount of views), it will always be available for educators to use as reinforcements or summaries to their lessons about addiction.


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