Skip to main content

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 2019 Projects

Adventure Science Center: Schermerhorn Scuttle Takes Patrons on A Musical Journey

The Adventure Science Center (ASC) is a family-focused science museum that strives to be an interactive and engaging community partner to all ages in Nashville, TN. In order to fortify its relationship with “Music City”, the ASC plans to open a permanent exhibit solely dedicated to the science of sound and music. As a part of this endeavor, the ASC cooperated with students from the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV) to design Schermerhorn Scuttle (Figure 1), an interactive game that will give visitors exposure to the fundamentals of music through entertaining and educational play.

Schermerhorn Scuttle is based off of the popular 1980s arcade game, Frogger. Utilizing the concept of a frog crossing busy traffic roads, it features a composer trying to make its way to a music hall. Named after a symphony hall located in Nashville, TN and styled after Venice, Italy, the game connects the ASC community to the game while adding in additional flair through the use of gondolas and Roman-style architecture. In place of a joystick, the user controls the composer’s movements via a custom-made Makey Makey piano keyboard. Makey Makey is an electronic invention kit that allows for easy, customizable electronics in which buttons pressed substitute for keys on a keyboard. At the end of each level, patrons can play back the keys they pressed to get the composer to the music hall to create an individualized composition.

We asked ASC patrons to complete a survey after interacting with our game, in order to collect information about their ages and their opinions about our game. To gauge their opinions, we asked patrons to rate the game on a 5-point scale, and to offer comments on what they liked and disliked about the game. To measure how appealing the game is to ASC patrons, we also investigated the final level that they reached while playing the game. The game is designed so that users are not obligated to finish every level in order to complete the game, and they may remain engaged for as long as they like, accounting for the variable attention span of different age groups. On average, patrons rated the game an average of 4.286 out of 5, indicating that most patrons liked our game, with patrons completed a median of 3.5 levels.  The most commonly praised aspects of the game were its music and graphics. The most common criticisms were a lag time in audio and that some of the hitboxes, areas around objects that react to being hit, were too large.

Schermerhorn Scuttle, featured as part of the ASC’s new exhibit, will help teach patrons the science behind sound, and, by extension, music, through interactive game play. Since the controller is a keyboard, they will learn basic piano layout and notes and explore the relationship between chords with different amounts of steps between them. The ease of the Makey-Makey keyboard will also allow ASC employees or volunteers to explain the basic mechanisms behind electronics and computer code to patrons. Through this exhibit and interactive game, citizens of Music City will become more aware science of the music that surrounds them.

Richland Creek Watershed Alliance: Invasive Species Awareness and Monitoring

Richland Creek Watershed Alliance

The Richland Creek Watershed stems from the Cumberland River in The Nations and spans south out to Belle Meade. The watershed covers a large portion of West Nashville. The Richland Creek Watershed Alliance (RCWA) strives to protect the environment surrounding the creek and the animals that call the watershed their home. The RCWA also stresses the importance of community involvement, as the health of the environment depends upon human interaction and public communication. Unfortunately, this critical aspect seems to be the hardest to achieve.

The RCWA has previously noted worsening conditions in the riparian zones (areas between rivers/creeks and the surrounding landscape) of Richland Creek. Riparian zones or buffers are characterized by hydrophilic vegetation and a greater diversity of species than other nearby areas. Aside from contributions to biodiversity, riparian habitats are important for a variety of ecosystem services, including the filtration of nutrients before they enter the water and stabilizing the river bank from erosion. Unfortunately, riparian zones are particularly vulnerable to environmental disturbances, especially those caused by the invasion of non-native species. RCWA has stated that invasive species have been “diminishing the natural, function, health, [and] quality of the riparian habitat.” Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), non-native bush honeysuckles, and chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) are among the most prevalent invasives present in Richland Creek’s riparian habitats. Wintercreeper, in particular, has been responsible for weakening many older trees. In accordance with RCWA’s previous initiatives, our goal was to assess the health of trees and invasive species cover throughout a stretch of riparian habitat along Richland Creek.

This community project monitors the health of the riparian zone and brings awareness to the issues that affect Richland Creek, and its riparian buffer, an important feature of our community at Vanderbilt and the larger Nashville community. In order to evaluate the status of Richland Creek, specifically the area neighboring McCabe Golf Course, all trees of Site 5 (established by the RCWA) are tagged and catalogued.

An interactive map was created that contains data of circumference/diameter, extent of invasive species infestation, species identification, and GPS location. The map was created in ArcGIS online using a topographic base layer. It includes two layers of data points: one layer shows the species of the tree (indicated by the color) and the circumference of the tree (indicated by the size of the point), while the other layer uses symbols to indicate the presence of wintercreeper. The map utilizes a hover feature that allows the user to click on any given point and view additional data about the tree, including latitude, longitude, diameter, and extent of wintercreeper.

The assessment of RCWA, and the interactive map created here, will be used by the RCWA to further analyze the health and biodiversity of Richland Creek’s riparian habitats. Using the map and the data collected from Site 5 in the assessment, RCWA will be able to investigate the distribution and diversity of species within the site. Using the wintercreeper data, RCWA can assess which species or locations are most vulnerable to invasion. The map can easily be extended to include other riparian sites if similar data is collected from these sites and added to the existing data, and it can also be embedded into the RCWA website.

Future uses of the interactive map and the data collected include using it as an educational tool. Having an online representation of their work that can be easily presented in a classroom or at a community meeting will allow RCWA to raise awareness of the problems facing Richland Creek and riparian habitats in general, and to inform the community about their efforts to combat them. The interactive nature of the map allows RCWA’s work to be more accessible to the greater public, and to visualize the layout and diversity of Richland Creek’s riparian habitat.

Tennessee Environmental Council: Reclaiming a Greenfield With Pollinator Habitats and a Chestnut Grove


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 in their ongoing effort to holistically rehabilitate the Nashville Greenfield site. The main goals of this year’s partnership were to establish a chestnut grove in a compatible location and to maintain the existing pollinator gardens with native flora through planting and invasive species removal. Ultimately, the goal is to restore the land and transform it into a functioning ecosystem that supports native pollinators and engages the community as described in this video.

To implement the chestnut grove, the SSMV and the TEC partnered with The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) who aim to restore the population of the nearly decimated American Chestnut. Potential Greenfield sites were chosen based on soil pH, elevation, and proximity to a water source to ensure compatibility with the trees. Additionally, tests for the presence of a deadly fungus, Phytophthora spp., were conducted to ensure that the Greenfield would provide a hospitable environment. The Greenfield site that was chosen was cleared of invasive species, and the grove was planted in a manner that fosters community education and enrichment. To further this goal, a three-panel sign was designed and placed in the grove, guiding the reader through the history of the American Chestnut, the SSMV-TEC involvement, and future steps to ensure the success of the American Chestnut population.

Another aspect of this project was to cultivate the Greenfield’s 4,000 sq ft of pollinator habitat adjacent to existing solitary bee houses. The gardens were weeded and reseeded with an Appalachian flower mix, supporting the solitary bee populations. The solitary bee houses were labeled, mapped, and monitored for the presence of bees. In addition, to protect the larvae from the harsh winter conditions, the bee houses were stored in a field operations facility on site.

Overall, restoring the Greenfield area has several significant impacts on the Nashville area. The local Nashville ecosystem is restored through rebuilding of the pollinator pathway, removal of invasive species, and replanting of native plants. Also, the population of heavily decimated American Chestnuts is fortified through the establishment of a chestnut grove. The local community directly benefits from participation in volunteerism by creating a tangible connection between volunteers and their environment. Future directions include institution of more pollinator gardens and bee colonies, in addition to complete removal and maintenance of invasive species, such as Japanese honeysuckle and Chinese privet, from the Greenfield property. The experience of volunteerism at the Greenfield site is integral to future restoration of the land and to connecting and educating the community about effective sustainability.

Biomedical Research Awareness Day: Educating the Public About Biomedical Research and the Humane Use of Animals in Research


Biomedical Research Awareness Day (BRAD) is an initiative under Americans for Medical Progress (AMP) that aims to educate the public about biomedical research (the broad area of science that focuses on ways to prevent and treat diseases that cause illness and death in both people and animals) and the humane use of animals in research. High school students from the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV) under the Vanderbilt Collaborative for STEM Education and Outreach, formerly the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach, were consulted to create both new materials for the public and a presentation to make BRAD more accessible to middle and high school students. All of the tangibles developed by the students at the SSMV for BRAD can be accessed for free on the Biomedical Research Awareness Day website.

The students developed coloring book pages, a “Fact or Fiction” game, a “What’s in the Box” activity, new BRAD giveaways, and a presentation aimed towards middle and high school students. Additionally, the students worked to brainstorm and implement ways to give BRAD and biomedical research more exposure through social media.

The group brought their presentation and activities to four groups of middle and high school students: the Day of Discovery Program at Vanderbilt University, and the Interdisciplinary Science and Research (ISR) Program sites at Hillsboro High School, Stratford STEM Magnet High School, and John Overton High School (all of which are also under the Vanderbilt Collaborative for STEM Education and Outreach, formerly the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach). The presentation began with a discussion of what the students already knew and how they felt about biomedical research prior to the presentation. A formal definition of biomedical research was given, and the presentation then moved to the “Fact or Fiction” game. For “Fact or Fiction,” participants guessed whether 15 statements were factual or fictional before correct responses were explained. Next, “What’s in the Box?” was played. For this activity, volunteers were brought up to the front of the class. An object was then placed in a box with a hole so that the participant could blindly feel, and then guess, the object. All objects used were related to biomedical research (e.g. a foraging ball used by non-human primates). At the end of the presentation, students were asked to share how they felt about biomedical research again, after learning more about it. It was found that many students’ opinions had changed over the course of the presentation; this may be due to the limited knowledge of students regarding the extent to which biomedical research is regulated.

Overall, the students from the SSMV were able to bring awareness of biomedical research to their peers through a fun and engaging presentation, and to the public through the creation of new materials for Biomedical Research Awareness Day.

Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research: Using Brain Science to Inform Young Minds About Addiction


The Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research (VCAR) conducts vital research and reaches out to educate surrounding communities, especially teenagers, about addiction. It is important to proactively educate teenagers about the ramifications of high incidences of drug exposure and use in American high schools. Teenagers are also more susceptible to making irrational decisions regarding drug use: while the adolescent reward system is fully developed, the prefrontal cortex, or decision-making hub, is not fully developed until around the age of 25.

As part of our partnership with VCAR, we had two objectives. The first was to help middle school students better understand the brain and how addiction affects the brain by using a 40-minute presentation, interactive questions, and surveys. Our second objective was to create a 3-minute animated video that compiles concise information about the brain and addiction. We began by learning about the brain and addiction by ourselves. Our presentation includes the topics of neuroplasticity, the reward system, neurotransmitters, nicotine’s and alcohol’s effects in the brain, and recovery. We presented this information to 12 different 7th and 8th grade classes, and reached over 280 students. Prior to each presentation, we gave students a pre-survey to check for their understanding. During the presentation, we used “brain breaks” to check intermittently for understanding and encourage participation. After the presentation, we answered the students’ questions and gave them a post-survey with the same questions as the pre-survey. The answers to the post-survey questions were used to understand how the students interpreted the presentation.

For our second objective, which was to create a short video, we condensed the information from our 40-minute presentation into a 3-minute script, and created an animation to sync with our script. This video can be used to promote VCAR and to provide a short and concise overview of addiction and the adolescent brain.

Through our presentations, we observed significant differences between the pre- and post-survey responses. Seven of the survey questions showed a significant change in score between the pre and post-surveys (p<0.0005), indicating that students showed an improved understanding of the risks of drug use and the consequences of addiction. For one of the questions, students were asked to write one word they associated most with “addiction.” Comparing the responses for this question from the pre- and post-surveys shows a dramatic increase in more scientific diction following the presentation. These words include: neurotransmitters, dopamine, and disease. As we implemented our project, we found increased interaction and questions to be the most effective ways to maintain students’ attention and increase understanding. Our presentation has demonstrated that educating teenagers about the consequences of long-term drug use through a more objective, scientific perspective is effective in helping students gain a better understanding of the risks of drug use and addiction.

Lake Shasta Caverns and Dr. Jessica Oster: Research in the Caverns on Display


The Lake Shasta Caverns are a popular network of caves located in northern California. There are daily tours given throughout the year, and as many as 65,000 individuals pass through the network annually. There are numerous paleoclimate studies being performed throughout the cave system by researchers. Researchers from Vanderbilt felt that there was a need for informative displays to educate individuals about the research in the cave, as many visitors saw the instruments used for data collection, but were not informed of their purpose in the cave. At the entrance of Shasta Caverns, there are large glass display cases that hold information about the cave system and the areas surrounding it.

Working with Dr. Oster, a Vanderbilt University researcher studying Shasta Caverns to utilize an empty display case at the entrance to the caverns, a list of the important areas of interest was created as a reference for what to include in the display. Informational text was drafted to accompany each subject area. The text was converted into informational figures that were integrated into the display. Each figure focused on a different aspect of research, such as scientific methods and the overall question that paleoclimate research is trying to answer. The images used ranged from data taken from similar paleoclimate research to diagrams that aid in understanding a cave’s structure. Each figure is color-coded so that related information is displayed in a similar color to make reading the display easier. Included with the display are three-dimensional models that represent the instruments used for data collecting in the cave. There are also two models of stalagmites, one created out of plaster and molded from a sample speleothem, and the other created from modelling clay. Other models include an example of a drip logger, a carbon dioxide monitor, and a water chemistry kit, instruments that are all commonly used in cave research. The final display will be shipped to California and installed during the summer of 2019.