Honors college's crowdfunding campaign puts students' research within reach

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Colin McKay has an idea: He wants to improve computer chip reliability.

Erin Trautmann wants to see if best practices from veteran elementary school band directors can help budding musicians make smarter choices when selecting an instrument.

And Thien Nhien Huynh thinks a better, more efficient battery charger could make electric cars more affordable.

Thanks to a crowdfunding campaign launched by the Schreyer Honors College last December to raise money for undergraduate research grants, all three are getting the opportunity to put their ideas to work.

Undergraduate research grants were the focus of the campaign, which ran for 10 days and had a $4,500 goal. It ended with more than $15,000 contributed — enough to award as many as 50 $300 grants starting this spring and continuing on through the 2014-15 academic year. It was the third successful crowdfunding initiative sponsored by the college since July.

“You need money to do research,” said McKay, who graduated in May with honors in engineering sciences. “In labs or in building projects, the bigger problems you run into are not having the materials you need. To be able to reach out and get what you need when you need it instead of waiting a month to go through so many different review panels or departments to get money makes things really nice.”

Mass appeal

Taking financial barriers out of the equation as Schreyer Scholars weigh the feasibility of a research project was the idea behind the crowdfunding campaign, said Sean Miller, the Schreyer Honors College’s director of development and alumni relations.

“The last thing we want is for a student to decide they can’t conduct this research or explore this idea they have because the funds aren’t there,” Miller said. 

“I think this campaign was successful because our supporters love seeing the cutting-edge research our Scholars are working on. Oftentimes these ideas are being explored in industry or research labs around the world. The cure for cancer or the idea about why languages are important — those solutions are going to come from a Scholar. Our students are around the University performing at a high level in labs with world-renowned scientists and researchers. It’s what’s best about Penn State and Schreyer all summed up in this one campaign.”

In recent years, nonprofits and startups have had success using crowdfunding to raise money or capital. But philanthropy in higher education has historically focused on cultivating large gifts from a select group of donors. Plus, traditional fundraising methods — mail and telephone solicitations — are seeing diminishing results. Miller said the idea of getting alumni, parents and others to pool funds together to achieve a large goal made a lot of sense.

“We were trying to get more of our alumni engaged in a way where they could accomplish something big, even if they didn’t have the funds personally to do so,” Miller said. “Crowdfunding is the rage right now, but it hadn’t been tried at Penn State before. We thought why couldn’t Schreyer do this? Just as we expect our Schreyer Scholars to be leaders and trailblazers, we thought we should do the same, to model this for the University.”

So far, the model seems to be working. The college has completed three crowdfunding campaigns: a campaign last August that netted more than $5,000 for support of SHO TIME, the college’s three-day orientation program for incoming Scholars; the research grant campaign that brought in more than $15,000; and an emergency scholarships campaign that raised nearly $16,000 for financial aid to needy students. 

Currently, there are two active campaigns: an effort to raise money for travel grants that has a goal of $6,000 and a $25,000 Gateway scholarships initiative to offer financial support to current Penn State students entering the college before the start of their junior year. Both will close June 30. The travel grant campaign has raised nearly $4,000 so far while the Gateway campaign has exceeded its goal.

What has gotten the attention of Miller and his colleagues is that the four of the five campaigns to date have met or significantly exceeded their goals, that the funds were raised in such a short period of time — most have lasted between 10 days and six weeks — and that new donors are supporting the college initiatives.

“It’s not just alumni,” Miller said. “While we’re seeing an increase in our alumni  donor number, we’re also seeing parents of our Scholars supporting these efforts, as well as members of the University community.”

Miller believes the success of the appeals lies with the impact the contributions are having upon individual students.

“Whether you give $5 or $5,000, you have an impact by supporting a Scholar in research, travel, scholarship and program opportunities,” Miller said.

Tangible results

The research grant campaign is a good example of having tangible benefits to the students receiving additional support. The funds raised are being used to offset research expenses and support travel to present research findings at conferences.

McKay, the spring honors graduate, used his grant to build a low-field spectrometer. The machine analyzes electrical conductivity in computer transistor chips about the size of a ballpoint pen tip. Aluminum, spools of wire, amplifiers, filters and a repurposed computer were among the materials McKay had to purchase.

“The grant definitely made things easier,” said McKay, who is continuing his research this summer and plans to continue to use the machine as he starts his doctoral studies this fall at Penn State. “The grant allowed us to do a rebuild. We ran into some problems the first time. It allowed us to get some better materials and allowed us to do some more experimenting with it. As Albert Einstein said, if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”

Trautmann, a music education major planning to graduate in May 2015, mailed a postcard to 1,000 elementary schools in Pennsylvania asking music educators to log on to an online survey about her research topic — how elementary band directors guide first-year students in instrument selection.

That choice can lead to years of musical performance and a lifetime of music appreciation or be a short, frustrating and sometimes expensive foray that ends well before the student moves on to middle school. Trautmann knows a little about what she’s studying — she started playing flute in fourth grade, she said, “for no other reason than my sister played flute, and we had one.”

“In high school, I ended up switching to bassoon, which is what really got me interested in music,” Trautmann said. I’m not sure I would have majored in music if I had stayed with flute. It’s such a fascinating time in a kid’s musical life when we pick a musical instrument, and it can lead to so many other things.”

Trautmann said the topic is building upon existing research — that as their careers progress, teachers change the way they go about instrument selection with elementary students — to see if new teachers could learn from those years of experience.

“If this is something we can do research on and help teachers start their careers selecting instruments in an efficient way and avoid trial and error, then along the way we’ll also be able to show better retention rates among beginning musicians and better balance in those beginner music groups,” Trautmann said.

For Huynh, an electrical engineering major planning to graduate in December from Penn State Harrisburg, the grant helped him purchase materials to build a battery charger. For his thesis, he plans to demonstrate that his charger will perform better than one using conventional components. He is hopeful that his design can be further developed as part of his post-graduate work.

“The big picture is for this to work in a car,” Huynh said. “We all know we have to try to find some other ways and some alternative fuels for cars. The best chance we have now is the electric car but it costs a lot now, with most of the costs from the battery technology. Because I’m not a chemical guy, I don’t have enough knowledge to try to improve the battery. But the second biggest cost is the charger. If this one works, it can bring the price down and make it more affordable. With more improvements, I want to make this work well and perform better than an existing battery charger.”

Huynh credits the research grant with making his project a reality.

“I’d probably have had to spend my own money to do my research,” Huynh said. “Being a Schreyer student really helped a lot. When you need something for your research, having this grant is one of the benefits.”

McKay said that those who contributed to the grant funding should know that they have made a long-term investment.

“My machine still works, and I’m going to be using it. I’m not leaving it behind,” McKay said. “I’m going to stick with it and use it until I get something really good out of it.

“My thesis proves that it works. My graduate work is going to be using it to make some real discoveries.”

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Last Updated June 05, 2014