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School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt

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 2018 Projects

Google Fiber: Promoting STEM Fields through Coding and Robotics with the use of Raspberry Pis

Partner Organization : Google Fiber

Google Fiber

SSMV students were working alongside Google Fiber to create curriculum for a workshop that teaches middle school students the importance of coding and robotics. The end goal of the workshop was for students to be able to write a basic algorithm that guides a robotic vehicle (Figure 1) through a maze via a Raspberry Pi microcomputer. The aim of the curriculum was to get students interested in computer science and coding, so as to promote future careers in STEM. It is important to spark interest in computer science and coding at the middle school level in order to help students understand how prevalent computer science and robotics are in modern society as well as generate interest in this field at an age where students still have some flexibility in deciding the future class schedule that they will pursue in high school. The workshop curriculum consisted of an introductory PowerPoint presentation, Minecraft Pi activity, a Peanut Butter and Jelly (PB&J) Activity, and programming paired with hands-on robotics. The workshop is designed to last approximately 90 minutes and would be appropriate for 10-15 students.

The introductory presentation is meant to spark the students’ interest in both robotics and computer science. It begins by explaining what programming is and how it is applicable in the students’ everyday lives. For example, many middle school students have smartphones, but few of them know how and why they work, so the presentation touches on this process. The presentation also stresses that programming not only affects our social lives, but especially our safety. Dangerous situations, such as car crashes, can be accurately modeled and analyzed without risk to human life. The goal of the presentation is to show students that they have all experienced the effects of programming, even if they do not realize it.

Minecraft Pi is used as a demo that is incorporated into the introductory presentation to show how efficient programming can be and to provide an example of how programming can be used in the students’ daily lives. As part of the Minecraft demo, a student is asked to build a 5x5x5 block by hand in Minecraft. After the student builds the block, the instructor(s) will code a 5x5x5 block into the game as a way of demonstrating how programming can expedite a menial task.

            The PB&J Activity can be implemented during the introductory presentation or at the end of the presentation and is used to show the strict and somewhat tedious nature of programming. Students are given a worksheet and instructed to write directions on how to properly construct a PB&J sandwich. They are told to be as specific as possible, and act as if the instructor is oblivious to what peanut butter, knives, bread, and jelly are and their connection to making a sandwich. Once the students hand in their responses, the instructor(s) makes the sandwiches according to the instructions (in the most literal sense). For example, if the student says to “put the peanut butter on the bread”, the actual jar of peanut butter is placed on the bread. This stresses the notion that computers are fast and efficient, but not smart – they will only do as they are told. This also helps students understand the importance of specificity in programming.

            Following the PB&J activity, the students are given both a prebuilt maze and prebuilt robot. The level of coding each student is asked to complete can be tailored to their experience level, with newer programmers asked to complete small portions of an existing code and experienced programmers asked to create the code from scratch. Once students have what they believe to be a “working” code, testing of the robot in the real maze begins. Often, this is an iterative process as students troubleshoot portions of the code that they believed were correct, but may not have worked as intended in the application of a real maze. As time allows, students are rotated to different mazes to encourage them to develop a code that can navigate any maze, not just a single configuration.

The workshop was piloted on a group of seven 9th grade high school students that participate in the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt program (SSMV). The students were surveyed before and after the lesson to assess how the lesson contributed to their understanding of computer science, coding, and robotics. The same survey was given before and after the lesson. The survey consisted of 11 questions that asked the students to indicate their interests in STEM fields as well as their enjoyment on a scale of 1-10. Students were also given open-ended survey questions, which provided feedback on ways to improve the workshop and curriculum. Much of this feedback was incorporated into the current set of lesson plans, and it is hoped that the workshop will be implemented with middle school students in the near future in order to better assess the influence of the lessons on generating interest in computer science and coding for the intended target audience.

Adventure Science Center: Sound and Music Exhibit Prototype

Partner Organization : Adventure Science Center

Adventure Science Center

The Adventure Science Center(ASC) is a family museum and a Nashville-based organization that displays hands-on, educational exhibits. In honor of Music City, the ASC has partnered with ROTO, a design company, on a new sound and music exhibit to explain the science behind sound and music while highlighting the local music industry. High school students from the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV) were consulted on the design of this exhibit for a student’s perspective. The students prototyped and tested a set of tone tubes to evaluate their educational potential and gauge community interest.

After participating in several design/rendering meetings with ROTO, the ASC, and members of the local community, the students learned that the ASC and ROTO envision the new exhibit to be highly interactive, engaging, and educational. The students thus decided to prototype tone tubes as they could be easily constructed and tested as well as adhere to ASC’s vision.

The design for the tone tubes consists of a one-octave C major scale made of varying lengths of PVC pipe, supported by a wooden frame. A uniquely colored flip-up card is attached to each pipe and gives details on each note including name and frequency of the specific pitch. A songbook providing a list of songs in musical notation, written letters, and colors corresponding to each flip book so that patrons of all musical ability levels can easily interact with the prototype.

Data on how patrons interacted with the tone tubes were collected over two days. The main information collected included time spent interacting with the tone tubes, favorite and least favorite part, and age range.  General observations were also collected to create a list of proposed improvements for the redesign. The total sample size was approximately 45 patrons, ages ranging from infant to upper sixties. Observations of possible simple improvements noted on the first day were incorporated before the second day of data collection.  

The students presented their findings to a panel of ASC staff with suggestions of improvement for the final design. Most patrons were able to interact with the prototype with intuitive ease, the exception being patrons of a very young age (0-4) who sometimes needed a demonstration by one of the students before attempting to play with the prototype. The average time spent with the prototype was approximately 2 minutes, and the majority of feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

A few possible improvements were also mentioned: a larger version of the prototype would give more than one visitor at a time the chance to interact with it; adding a step stool would allow children of all ages to reach and interact with the prototype better; digitizing the song book would allow visitors to easily scroll through the options, see them more clearly, and even be shown a demonstration of how to play the tone tubes, possibly with LED lights on each tube that light up to indicate which note to play.

The students, ASC, and ROTO evaluated the prototype as a success and are working to create a more permanent version which may be featured as part of the exhibit.

Building Pollinator Habitats

Partner Organization : Tennessee Environmental Council


The Tennessee Environmental Council (TEC) is a state-run organization that works to rehabilitate sites not only for an environmental benefit, but for the public welfare. Sharing the same views on the importance of the surrounding environment, the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV) partnered with the TEC in an effort to holistically rehabilitate the Nashville Greenfield site. As the site is a growing space with new pollinator gardens and tree groves, the primary goal of this project was to provide a source of continuing growth that would catalyze the natural process: pollinators. Therefore, a focus was taken to implement apiary and solitary bee habitats as well as additional pollinator habitats (i.e. pollinator gardens and tree groves) to comprehensively contribute to restoration.

While this project was multifaceted, one goal of this project was to increase pollination on the Greenfield site through the use of bees. However, a unique approach was taken to implementing resident pollinators as both honey bees and solitary bees were chosen to be situated on the site. Taking into consideration the dynamics of the area, such as the size and geographical features, a combination of the bee types works to the site’s advantage.

Honeybees are social insects that live in and maintain the hive together. Due to their 3 mile pollination radius and goal of producing honey for the survival of the hive, they tend to be inefficient pollinators. To counteract this, solitary bees habitats were included in the project. These bees live alone and inhabit holes in various materials. In addition to their low maintenance levels, solitary bees pollinate only within a 100 meter radius, making them excellent pollinators. Project additions included three adjacent hives and one solitary bee habitat. This combination of both honey and solitary bees should increase pollination efficiency.

Two new fruit tree groves composed of native species were planted to accompany the bee habitats. Each grove is comprised of roughly twenty saplings (with an even mix of paw-paw and black cherry trees). The addition of these species contributes to the development of the Level II arboretum status currently in place.

Furthermore, this project worked on the maintenance and creation of three new pollinator gardens as an ongoing project on the site. In order to track progress and create a base for future research, GPS coordinates of each of the pollinator gardens, both fruit tree groves, the hive site, and other pre-existing site features were collected and compiled onto a map that spans the 140-acre site. Finally, soil samples from multiple pollinator gardens, the wetland area, and the fruit tree groves were collected and tested to better understand the soil conditions for future reference.

Beyond those additions, a seasonal maintenance and upkeep checklist for the beehives was developed. These steps, along with the group’s mentorship with a member of the Nashville Area Beekeeping Association (NABA), will ensure the sustainability of the hives. This project hopes to establish future community involvement and create a foundation for plant-pollinator research, as well as providing a new habitat for bees that can work towards restoring the Greenfield.

Sustainable Classrooms Air Quality Lesson

Partner Organizations : Urban Green Lab


Urban Green Lab (UGL) is a non-profit organization that focuses on changing lifestyles in the Nashville community to urge residents to live more sustainably. One of the most critically important populations in an urban environment is children, and they are easily accessed through educational curriculum in school. By teaching middle-school age children about sustainability and the changes they can make in their own lives to counteract climate change, Urban Green Lab attempts to make long-lasting societal impacts.


This project involved two interconnected pieces: the climate change workshop, designed for 8th grade students, and the Sustainable Classrooms Air Quality Lesson, designed for 6th grade students. In the climate change workshop, designed for presentation by a UGL staff member or volunteer, students learn about the greenhouse effect, climate change, and associated ramifications, followed by hands-on demonstrations of the greenhouse effect, ocean acidification, and sustainable development. Sustainable Classrooms is a UGL and MNPS partnership involving seven lesson plans that can be taught across the district to educate students about sustainability. In this project, the lesson plan for the seventh lesson, covering air quality, was completed. The lesson includes a powerpoint presentation introducing students to different gases and their effects, a hands-on modeling activity, and an audit to be completed by students at home.


Both the workshop and the lesson plan were piloted in McMurray Middle School classrooms successfully. Throughout the development and pilot process, findings indicate that students have a lack of understanding of climate change and contemporary environmental concerns; with a curriculum such as this one that addresses that lack of knowledge, students and their families can be exposed to sustainable practices that may guide their future choices. 

VCAR Substance Abuse Prevention for Adolescents

Partner Organization : Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research


The unfortunate reality is that substance abuse and drug addiction are issues deeply entrenched in our society today. Not only do they cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars annually, but they affect numerous adolescents, particularly middle and high school students. During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for rational decision-making, is not yet fully developed, but the reward system, the pathway responsible for experiencing pleasure, is fully developed. This dangerous combination results in adolescents being more vulnerable and susceptible to substance abuse and drug addiction when they are exposed to harmful substances such as cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and opioids.


The Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research (VCAR) works to gain a better understanding of the molecular events that drive addictive behavior inside the brain and develops treatment strategies to combat this. They seek to make a positive impact on addiction through research, education, and outreach. As an element of their outreach, VCAR partnered up with the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV) to educate adolescents in the Metro Nashville area regarding the detrimental effects that substance abuse has on the brain. Together with VCAR, SSMV created a curriculum to teach middle and high school students about the neurobiology of addiction in an effort to provide evidence-based education and empowerment to teens using a scientific foundation.


The curriculum was delivered to 8th grade students at two local middle schools and one 10th grade class as well. Pre- and post-surveys were also administered, and the results indicated that students gained a better understanding of the ramifications and risks of drug use and the concept of addiction being a disease that permanently changes the brain. The results also showed that the students, now equipped with this information, were comfortable speaking with their peers about drug addiction. The overall purpose of the curriculum was to demonstrate that while a drug is not initially used with the intent of addiction, a person loses control when neurological changes occur. Thus, in order to battle the US’s addiction epidemic, adolescents need to be aware of how drugs affect the brain and the consequences of drug use through scientific basis and evidence, not just through social education programs.

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