This Research Club is Going Places from Philadelphia to Texas to Africa

By Katie (Paxson) Hammaker ’93

It can be a challenge to sell an activity that requires additional homework, but that’s exactly what students in Ship’s BSW and MSW Research Clubs sign up to do.

Dr. Michael Lyman, associate professor in the Department of Social Work and Gerontology, serves as the advisor for both clubs—one for undergraduate and one for graduate social work students. 

“Usually students are not knocking on my door to hurry and join the Research Club,” Lyman admitted. The clubs usually have three to five participants a year. But those who do participate reap significant benefits. The clubs enable social work students to gain hands-on research experience and present their findings at national and international conferences.

With Lyman’s supervision, students design and conduct their own research projects. They have tackled tough topics over the last decade including interracial and interethnic interaction among Ship students, motivators and barriers to a student’s community service, and family values and the coming out process.

Research clubs in the Social Work and Gerontology Department provide undergraduate and graduate students with opportunities to present research nationally and internationally.

Research clubs in the Social Work and Gerontology Department provide undergraduate and graduate students with opportunities to present research nationally and internationally.

Recently, the BSW Club completed research for Amend, a counseling and educational program for domestic violence offenders located in Carlisle. Dorothy Andrews, adjunct instructor in the MSW program and an Amend volunteer, requested an analysis of the program. Students researched the crime records of domestic violence offenders, both of Amend graduates and those who attended other programs or did not complete a program. 

Their research verified Amend’s success, showing that men who completed the program were less likely to become repeat domestic violence offenders. The results will be useful to Amend when applying for grants as well as help them to expand the program.  

Last year, the MSW Club completed a research project on The Harbor, a sober bar or non-alcoholic gathering place, in Shippensburg. Sonja Payne ’05 helped observe and interview Harbor patrons to study this fairly new concept. 

“A person’s community is essential to substance abuse recovery, but it is difficult to find places to socialize without alcohol,” she said. “The goal of our research was to show the positive impact a substance-free place can have on one’s recovery journey.”

Payne has extensive experience as a social worker, and is now enrolled in Ship’s graduate program. “I am tired of banging my head against the same systemic barriers. I really want to make changes. But this is hard to do without empirical data to prove your ideas.”  

Payne credits the research club with helping her gain experience and confidence in her ability as a researcher. She had an opportunity to help present The Harbor research at both the National Association of Social Workers conference, and the International Association of Social Work with Groups conference in South Africa.

Lyman led a group of seven students to the conference in South Africa in June. “I love that I am able to take students from rural Pennsylvania to an international conference in a country they have never seen to present research that they designed and completed,” he said. “The experience is invaluable.” 

“There’s no grade attached to attending a conference,” Lyman continued. “It’s just a relaxed environment and ultimately helps the students have a wonderful learning experience.” 

According to Lyman, it is rare for undergraduate students to present at national and international conferences. Yet, he is determined to provide this experience for his students. He has taken Research Club members to conferences in Philadelphia, New York City, Texas, Kentucky, and Singapore.  

“We attended South Africa partly because it’s a great country, and partly because Kruger National Park is located on the conference site,” Lyman said. “It’s the best possible conference ever.” 

Kruger houses a variety of animals including elephants, rhinos, leopards, lions, giraffes, antelope, and hyenas. Between conference sessions, the group went on safaris. “We saw very big animals that could potentially eat you or stomp on you. It was frightening and absolutely incredible.” 

The students also visited a nearby village and spent time with children at an after-school program. “All of the kids who attend have terminal illness or are HIV positive,” Payne said. “We did face painting with them and had a percussion lesson using buckets and sticks as drums.” 

Attending the conference was not cheap, but the group managed to cover expenses through grants, a GoFundMe campaign, and with help from the College of Education and Human Services. Students also worked at the conference in exchange for free lodging. 

Lyman was no stranger to South Africa. He and his family spent most of 2009 there when Lyman completed a sabbatical at the University of Pretoria. The experience sparked his interest in social development and international social work. 

The BSW Research Club was started in 2008 by Dr. Marita Flagler, associate professor and co-director of MSW. The MSW Club was added last year at the request of graduate students. 

To Lyman’s knowledge, research clubs are unique to Ship. With that in mind, his next foray is a project on research clubs. Lyman wants to understand and quantify the value of Ship’s research clubs. Students will interview past participants to measure the benefits of their experience and any impact it had on their careers. 

Katie (Paxson) Hammaker ’93 is the director of development and marketing for the Susquehanna Chorale and a freelance writer based in Mechanicsburg.