UMBC’s 25th Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day (URCAD) reached more viewers than ever before, with visitors connecting online from as far away as Spain, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Bhutan, Germany, and the U.K.. Audiences logged more than 11,000 visits (compared with 8,000 in 2020) and posted more than 3,500 comments over the course of the week-long event.
“While we are eager to get back to the live event, there are definitely aspects of the online event that have widened the scope of URCAD,” says April Householder, director of undergraduate research and prestigious scholarships. “Presenters were able to invite friends and family members from other countries to view their presentations, and invite international scholars as potential future collaborators.”
Over 350 students presented projects, from novel artistic work to lab research to analysis of historical archives. The questions they asked reflected engagement with significant challenges and opportunities of today.
Zoe Hwang, English, was inspired to study the history of Koreans in Baltimore after reading a chapter about Korean immigrant communities in the city written by Aletheia Hyun-Jin Shin in the book Baltimore Revisited. Then COVID-19 happened and with it came a rise in hate crimes toward members of Asian communities in the United States. “I’m scared to go outside,” shares Hwang, who is Korean and lives in Maryland. “I was surprised that so many people thought this was new and were unaware of the history of racism toward the Asian community.”
She decided to widen the scope of her research for URCAD. In “We Were Never Welcome Here: How American History Predicted the Rise of Racism and Xenophobia During COVID-19,” Hwang uses archival posters and newspapers to contextualize racism toward Chinese and Japanese communities in the U.S. from 1850 to the present, while demonstrating how negative sentiments about one Asian community have often translated into violence for other Asian communities. “I want to continue to educate others about the diversity of the Asian community and the dangers of lumping the people and cultures under a single term,” says Hwang.
When COVID struck, many Baltimore families without internet access were completely disconnected from much-needed services that had moved online, and were disconnected from their communities. In fall 2020, Foad Hamidi, assistant professor of information systems, received NSF funding to research this problem in collaboration with the Digital Harbor Foundation and Project Waves, providing affordable internet service in Baltimore. Hamidi and Nora McDonald, research assistant professor of information systems, led a study to understand the experiences of low-income Baltimore families without broadband access, and student researchers played a major role in the work.
Hamidi says a lot has changed from when they started the project. “The preliminary findings have found that participants and partners value connectivity that is affordable, that can be used with social distancing, is offered by grassroots community organizations, and is private,” he shares.
Working on project Waves has been a humbling and a very rewarding experience for Karina Lopez-Brown ‘21, information systems. “Our research in Project Waves demonstrated to me that it doesn’t matter the level of knowledge or expertise that we have,” says Lopez-Brown, “we just need to be willing to share our knowledge to help our community.”
In addition to Lopez-Brown, the student team included seniors Rushaad Wright, business technology administration, and Daniel Laguna, information systems, as well as Lydia Stamato, a doctoral student in human-centered computing.
For Laguna, the project has been an opportunity to strengthen relationships with his peers and mentors and to collaborate with the Baltimore City community. “In these times where we have had to remain physically distant from one another it’s been easy to feel isolated from the world,” says Laguna. “But all of these connections have really helped me feel closer to the rest of the world.”
Conversation with squeegee kids
Growing up in Baltimore City, Sydney Fryer ’22, psychology, was accustomed to seeing young Black boys and men standing on downtown street corners ready with squeegees, trying to earn money by cleaning car windshields. Fryer saw the “Squeegee Kids” as a positive part of Baltimore City’s culture and economy but knew some residents and visitors didn’t share this sentiment.
In “Decriminalizing (and Re-Humanizing) the ‘Squeegee Kid,” Fryer used Baltimore Sun archives, social media data, and interviews with the youth to examine the criminalization of these young men over forty years of city history. “Sydney’s methodology was designed to recognize the crucial role that discourse and policy play in shaping young people’s daily experiences,” says Dena Aufseeser, assistant professor of geography and environmental systems.
Fryer found that White boys and men doing similar work were seen as entrepreneurial while “Squeegee Kids” were often described through unsubstantiated narratives about crime and violence. She says her interviews revealed that, “many of them are working to buy clothes, food, books, and to help their families,” so what they earn often goes right back into the city’s economy.
Understanding the structure of HIV
As COVID-19 vaccine research moved forward at light speed this past year, research on other pandemics continued to make steady progress. Three groups of students presented their research on HIV-1, the retrovirus that causes AIDS.
Michael Summers, Distinguished University Professor of chemistry and biochemistry and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, mentored over a dozen students that contributed to two of the major collaborative projects presented at URCAD, focused on the structures of HIV-1 MAL junction conformers and the HIV-1 5′ leader. Faith Davis ‘22, sociology and biological sciences, is part of the second project and a 2021 Newman Civic Fellow.
“The work is focused on determining an unsolved piece of the structure of the 5` leader of HIV-1’s genome, which is what makes HIV so infectious,” she explains. “If the structure of this area can be determined, it could possibly inform cures or better treatments for HIV.”
For UMBC’s video game designers, going virtual was not new. Marc Olano, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering, mentored four projects presented at URCAD, each led by a group of about four students. They include Sword Shibe; Recurring Moment – A Time Travel Puzzle Platformer; Jump Starters, and the two-player Android and PC strategy game Hamster Toaster Checker. Students in UMBC’s computer science game development track collaborated with students in animation and interactive media to envision and begin developing the new games.
“The beauty of the CMSC 493 class is that it brings artists and programmers together and the management of the project is completely led by us,” says Kristian Mischke ‘21, computer science, the game designer for the Recurring Moment project.
In Sword Shibe, players take a dog with a sword through different paths. The student team that created it drew inspiration for its concept designs from Japanese culture, folklore, and legends. The dog in the game is also inspired by a Shiba Inu, which is a breed of hunting dog from Japan.
Olano worked to model the students’ project experience on the structure of the game design and development industry. “Students began working through ideas in small teams and worked their way through prototypes and onto a bigger team,” he explains. “In the game industry, you have to work collaboratively or you fail.”
Mischke explains how he would bounce ideas off the artists for visual appeal or about the game’s narrative arc. With the other programmers, he talked through implementation feasibility. “We all would give feedback and discuss adaptations together,” says Mischke. “Everyone on the team was able to be part of the process and apply their unique skill set.”
“Finding the Sun” was created by Michelle Young ‘21, visual arts, who directed, animated, and composed the music for the film. She took an interdisciplinary approach by combining her illustration, design, 2D animation, and sound design skills to explore the themes of self-worth and self-acceptance.
The girl in the movie wakes up to a dark world and goes in search of the sun, says Young, only to find out she is the light in the world—that she is enough. “I was hoping that the simplicity of the character would allow the viewer to put themselves in their shoes,” she explains. “I wanted to create something that was meaningful and encouraging to people wherever they are in this difficult time in our lives.”
“Familiarity in Change” shows viewers imagery of various locations, such as an empty beach and snowy park, that express a desolate feeling. However, by pairing those images with peaceful music, creator Angela Endres ‘22, visual arts, transforms the mood to serenity and comfort.
Endres finds meaning in showing the emptiness of these places, which prior to COVID would have been enjoyed by family and friends coming together. “Isolation has made me see the beauty in everyday life,” she shared in her URCAD talk. “The world has changed and that’s OK.”
Banner image: A scene from Michelle Young’s short film “Finding the Sun.” Image courtesy of Young.