MAILED: May 25, 2000
UW-Eau Claire's Blugold Fellowship is designed to attract quality students and it has done just that.
Soon to begin its third year, the Blugold Fellowship provides an opportunity for freshmen and sophomores to participate in student/faculty collaborative research, something typically undertaken in upperclass years, said Dr. Margaret Cassidy, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Each year, 20 freshmen are offered the $500 scholarship and a $1200 stipend to work about five hours a week on a research project. The students may receive the same amount their sophomore year by working on the same or a different research project.
Those eligible for the program must have earned an ACT score of at least 25 and placed in the top 25 percent of their high school graduating class or have a 3.5 grade-point average. Potential students also are asked to write an essay.
The Blugold Fellowship has made an impact on students, faculty, academic staff and the community. That impact is evident in freshman Zach Sauer's research project.
Sauer, a psychology major from West Bend, has been studying the effects of animals on the health and psychological well-being of nursing home residents. Besides the research component of Sauer's project, there is the service-learning aspect. Every Friday, Sauer and Dr. Robert Burns, director of UW-Eau Claire's Center for Service-Learning, visit the Syverson Lutheran Home with a borrowed animal or two usually dogs but also cats and rabbits from the Eau Claire County Humane Association. They try to visit during a group activity, but they also visit specific residents who especially appreciate the animals, such as "Maggie in Room 212," Sauer said with a smile.
"The whole foundation of service-learning is we ask ourselves what is our responsibility to our neighbor," Burns said. "Our actions or lack thereof have an impact on people in the community."
Burns' father, who died one and a half years ago, lived in a nursing home for six months. His experience with his father prompted him to think it would be beneficial for people to take Humane Association animals into nursing homes.
"I thought it would be kind of interesting to use the services of one organization to assist another," Burns said of the idea for the project.
When he learned of Sauer's interest, it was a perfect match.
Coincidentally, Dr. Greg Madden, assistant professor of psychology, also had a relationship with the Humane Association before Sauer came along. Madden had been working with students who were teaching dogs rudimentary skills to make them more attractive to potential owners.
While Burns describes the project as "action research," Madden has been key in the scientific research part of the project.
"As a scientist, my interest in Zach is to take a skeptical view of what he's doing," Madden said. "My question is, are (the animals) at all effective? Do they enhance the quality of life?"
This project appeals to Madden because his major area of interest is behavior analysis, which examines the basic principles of behavior discovered with animals in a laboratory setting and then attempts to apply the principles to humans in a therapeutic setting.
There have been a few published studies that looked at the effects of animals on humans, but they weren't conducted very well, Madden said. Some of the studies show health benefits and some show emotional benefits. They may show transitory effects, which means "people get better, get used to having a dog around, then go back to feeling bad again," Madden said. He said it's fine if the effects are transitory, but it may mean the animal needs to be taken away and replaced with new, unfamiliar animals in order to produce emotional and/or health benefits.
Sauer, Burns and Madden hope to continue the project next year with the help of other interested students. Because previous published studies have been only three to six months long, Madden would like to see a year-long study. Sauer has been collecting preliminary data by asking Syverson residents a series of 50 questions to determine what their physical and emotional lives are like without the consistent presence of an animal. Then, Madden hopes, after they have found no significant changes for a couple months, Sauer will introduce a pet one the nursing home has adopted, it is hoped and will measure any changes.
"I wanted to make people and animals feel better," Sauer said of the reason he chose this project. "I care about animals, and I care about people. This is the easiest way to combine the two."
Sauer who, at the age of 10, was the youngest volunteer ever for the West Bend Humane Association thinks he wants to pursue a career solving the behavioral problems of animals. However, in order to pursue his specialized interests in pet therapy, he will need to transfer to UW-Madison his junior year. Although it's unfortunate UW-Eau Claire will lose such a fine student, Burns said, "We ought to celebrate that because he's discovering what he wants to do."
Sauer speaks highly of the Blugold Fellowship and said the program was a major factor in his decision to attend UW-Eau Claire.
"While other colleges offered me other educational and service opportunities, there was truly nothing else like this anywhere I applied," Sauer said. "It still boggles my mind that I was offered something that suits my interests so well, and I am very thankful for it. In short, I reasoned that an institution that provides such a unique opportunity to its students must be the right choice for me."
Several faculty members working with other Blugold Fellowship recipients also have indicated the program appears to have helped students finalize decisions to attend UW-Eau Claire.
The value of the program is multifaceted. Students learn research skills and how to work with others, Cassidy said. "It provides an early connection with faculty and exposure to the university as a learning community. It may even help students down the road if they choose to attend graduate school," Cassidy said. "Some students come in undecided about their major. I think this gives them a unique opportunity to do some exploration and may help them determine what they want to study."
"It's nice (UW-Eau Claire) can recruit talented students," Madden said of the Blugold Fellowship. "Talented students allow us to do really great things."
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: May 25, 2000