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  • Group of 5 students working together at table
  • Wofford students working with seniors
  • Wofford student and an older adult working together
  • Wofford student and older adult working together on a cell phone
  • Student and Dr. Bopp working with an older adult

Putting theory into practice

Psychology students apply lessons learned in the classroom to real-world experience.

Student research team gets high-stakes lesson in due process

A Wofford professor and four Wofford psychology majors recently participated in a high-profile criminal case.

The semester was already under way when Dr. Dawn McQuiston, associate professor of psychology and one of the college’s pre-law advisers, received a call from a local defense attorney. His client’s particularly visible homicide trial was about to begin, and the defense team wanted help with jury selection.

“I contacted four top students from my previous ‘Psychology and Law’ class and said, ‘I need your help right now. Drop what you’re doing,’” says McQuiston.

Anna Usher ’17, a psychology major with a business minor from Asheville, N.C., jumped at the chance. “I knew this could be my only opportunity to do this, and I can’t imagine a better way to apply what we learned in our ‘Psychology and Law’ class,” she says. “Plus, it’s a huge honor to know we had the trust of our professor and the defense attorney.”

McQuiston says the case was emotional with photos and evidence that were hard to see.

“I thought of these particular students because they were all in the top of their class, and I knew that they could handle the weight of this case,” says McQuiston. “The stakes were high, and they took the work very seriously.”

For Sydney Butler ’18, a psychology major with a business minor from Charlotte, N.C., the experience confirmed her interest in the field.

“This experience boosted my confidence and gave me real-world exposure to the role of psychology in the law,” she says. “I saw our work as helping assure the defendant’s right to a fair trial. It wasn’t about right or wrong, it was about the integrity of the judicial system.”

Olivia Crotts ’17, a psychology major with a history minor from Laurens, S.C., says she learned that things are not always black and white.

“It’s complicated,” she says. “Knowing that, I gained so much respect for the judicial process — especially for the attorneys and Dr. McQuiston, who showed us how to be professional in this setting.”

According to McQuiston, selecting the most sympathetic jury can take months, and defendants with deep pockets — typically big corporations — may spend thousands of dollars to give themselves that advantage. That wasn’t the case in this trial; the work had to be done quickly.

“The point is to use scientific data to select or deselect jurors,” says McQuiston. “Ideally I want to look specifically at the local juror pool to determine trends in juror opinions based on demographics like income, gender, age or political views, and also take personality characteristics and preconceived ideas about justice into account. Conducting mock juries and focus groups is another way to determine the type of juror who will be sympathetic to certain kinds of evidence.”

Juror behavior and selection may be a science, but the Wofford student research team still had to contend with emotion.

“A lot of people get upset and say, ‘how you could defend a person who is charged with killing someone?’ It’s not about that. It’s about holding the prosecution to a high standard, which is better for our justice system,” says Faith Lifer ’17, a psychology major with minors in humanities and film and digital media from Hilton Head, S.C. “The stakes are so high … I wish everyone could be on the inside of the judicial system at some point. The experience gives you a different perspective.”

McQuiston says that the Wofford students were incredibly helpful and brought a wealth of knowledge to the work. This was her first time employing students as research assistants for an actual criminal case involving jury selection, but she says she’d do it again.

“When the students and I debriefed, I realized that this might just be one of the most educational experiences I’ve been able to offer them,” says McQuiston. “They got an insider’s view of the legal system, and the work was intense, sad and important. In the end the attorney told me how much he valued their contributions, which made me very proud.”

The case has now concluded. Justice was served, and so was an unforgettable dose of real-world experience for four Wofford students.

Wofford psychology students teach and learn from intergenerational interactions

To simulate the effects of aging, students in Dr. Kara Bopp’s “Adult Development and Aging” class wear glasses that make their vision blurry. They put in earplugs to make hearing harder and wrap Band-Aids around their fingers and tape their wrists to simulate arthritis. To complete the experience they put stability collars around their necks to limit mobility, dried peas in their shoes to replicate neuropathy and cotton balls in their nose to diminish their sense of smell.

“After we alter their sensory and ambulatory abilities, the students attempt the Get Up and Go Test,” says Bopp, referring to a common balance and mobility assessment performed with older adults. “It helps the students realize that their bodies will change. Throughout their lifetimes, older adults suffer the loss of people they love as well as the loss of their physical abilities. Getting a taste of what that loss means helps students feel empathy and forces them to think about their futures in a different way.”

In class, students discuss research in the field on memory and aging. They talk about nutrition, exercise and healthy habits that they can adopt now that will make a difference in 50 years. Bopp considers that information vital, but limited. That’s why she built a practical component into the curriculum.

One assignment involves requiring each student to tour an assisted-living or skilled-nursing facility as if they were choosing care for their parent or grandparent.

“It’s important to get them to think about those very real conversations before they become personal,” says Bopp. “Often students only have the examples of their own older family members. I like to expose them to a diversity of aging experiences.”

Bopp has developed a mutually beneficial relationship with White Oak Estates in Spartanburg to reinforce student learning. For example, during the fall semester her students joined White Oak residents to celebrate Active Aging Week. During one session, older adults sat on a panel answering Wofford student questions about aging.

“We sort of got off track talking about how things have changed in society since we were their age,” says Jan Frances, a retired teacher who has written four books. “We had a captive audience and enjoyed talking with the Wofford students.”

According to Emily Cappelmann ’18, a psychology major from Mount Pleasant, S.C., the White Oak residents talked about what it was like to grow up during World War II and where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. “I realized then that my generation one day will be talking about where we were during 9/11.”

Later in the week Wofford students enjoyed lunch with White Oak residents and shared technology advice. The older adults were asked to bring their laptops, e-readers and smartphones for one-on-one tutorials.

“I do a lot of walking and want to learn how to use Map My Walk.” “My son put me on Facebook, and I want to know how to post a picture of the puzzle I just finished.” “I want to Skype my girlfriend.” The Wofford students fielded a variety of questions, the older adults enjoyed the experience and their discussions extended well beyond technology.

“One resident wanted me to set his laptop to automatically connect to WiFi. Then we downloaded the Walmart App and Netflix," says Sutton Alexander ’18, a psychology major from Rock Hill, S.C. “He was so much fun to talk with. I couldn’t believe he was 92 years old.”

Gladys Ballinger, a resident of White Oak for almost 16 years, didn’t need computer help.

“I came to see people I didn’t know before the group discussion on Tuesday. I liked that most of the Wofford students called me by my first name. It made me feel good,” says Ballinger, who’s 86. “When you’re as old as I am, people don’t pay you much attention, but I’m still around and still have something to share.”

For Ballinger that meant sharing a joke a day with the Wofford students.

“The reciprocal benefits of these intergenerational interactions are so important,” says Bopp. “Discussing technology, for instance, gives both older and younger adults a connector, something that leads to conversations and stories, and in Gladys’s case, jokes.”

The “Adult Development and Aging” course is an upper-level elective course often taken by psychology and biology majors. Many students come into the course skeptical.

“The experience made me optimistic about aging,” wrote Audra Pack ’17, a psychology major from Sarasota, Fla., in her class journal. “I now know that it is not all dark and dreary and that older adults are capable of having just as much fun, if not more, than young adults. This class has provided me the opportunity to see aspects of aging that I would not have previously noticed and has provided me with the tools I need to help my own family members and myself.”

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89