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Honors Program students show off their hard work, hear from renowned researcher

May 2, 2014

Dr. Lewis P. Lipsitt Dr. Lewis P. Lipsitt addresses the crowd at the Honors Forum on April 30. View more photos from the event.

It was a full house on hand for the 14th Annual Honors Forum at the Community College of Rhode Island and, although many of the attendees had spent the previous semesters taking on the additional work necessary to earn credit for their Honors Projects, they weren't done learning yet.

"The role of a university professor is first and foremost to teach and instill knowledge," said David Alfano, associate professor of Psychology at CCRI, as he introduced his former professor, Dr. Lewis P. Lipsitt.

Lipsitt, the keynote speaker for the event, is a professor emeritus at Brown University, where he served as the founding director of the Child Study Center. He spoke to a group of CCRI's faculty, staff, honors students and their guests about his 50 years of experience in the field of psychology. Engaging and entertaining, Lipsitt clearly felt at home describing his lifelong work to a group of students. One of the most amazing things about Lipsitt's lecture was the realization that his experience spans nearly half of psychology's modern presence – and certainly some of the most important discoveries about infant development and behavior.

"I'm very eager to hear what I have to say now," he began after an introduction from Alfano, his former student.

Throughout the course of his presentation, Lipsitt explained the shift in our understanding of infant development that happened as researchers began to focus less on status, such as comparisons between infants made with the benchmarks of what amounts to standardized testing, and more on process, meaning the mechanisms that infants use to learn. What now seems common sense in hindsight wasn't always the prevailing wisdom, he said; he recounted one veteran nurse's surprise at finding out that the babies she was walking by each day could in fact see and sense her.

"I found that a lot of people didn't understand how sophisticated the newborn child is," said Lipsitt.

Through case studies from his own work as well as historical information tied back to the giants of the field, such as Freud, Watson and Piaget, Lipsitt shared with his audience just how sophisticated infants are. He revealed that they can anticipate and assimilate tastes, that they can seek out tastes they enjoy and that they display a self-concept (that is, they mirror those who respond well to them, and vice versa), all from a very early age.

Though his presentation was peppered with humor and adorable photographic evidence of his study subjects, his message to the audience at the Honors Forum was quite important. It was that doubt, questions and curiosity are what lead to important discoveries and significant work. "I'm here to say doubt is a very good thing. It's the hallmark of a good scientist," he said.

"I've had fun in this field," he said of his work. "And I hope whatever you do, you folks have a lot of fun in your occupations and preoccupations."

After Lipsitt's talk, Professors Karen Kortz and Lynne Andreozzi-Fontaine, who co-chair the Honors Program, presented approximately 60 students with diplomas signifying their completion of a semester-long in-depth research project.

"It says a lot about you and your character that you chose to complete these projects," said college President Ray Di Pasquale in his introductory remarks that evening. "You may all have different stories to tell, but you all had the same goal in mind: to make the most out of your community college experience and to take your education very seriously."

Out in the hallway, the crowd at the forum then moved outside to see the fruits of the students' labor, as each stood beside a poster representing his or her work. It seemed as though Lipsitt's crowd, whom he implored to always bring a curious and passionate spirit to their work, was one that had taken that message to heart before he had even delivered it to them.

Student Joyce Campbell is one such learner, and she stood in front of four of her five honors projects from her career at the college in testament to that. Campbell was presenting a geology project, a short piece of historical fiction written about the storms that ravaged her native Point Judith, a photography project and an oral communications project. Set to start at URI next fall, Campbell ultimately wants to come back and teach at CCRI – something she learned from her experience working on her oral communications honors project. "I was able to learn so much from these projects," she said.

Student Jo-Ann Lombardi, a Nursing program hopeful, said she felt the same – both about the honors program and about Lipsitt's talk. "It was my first time doing an honors project, and it was very challenging. It pushed me to take my education to the next level," she said.

Lombardi said she found the talk particularly interesting because of how it coincided with her own honors project, which was about perceptions of alcohol use during pregnancy. While Lipsitt's studies were about the developmental effects of familial and environmental factors on infants, Lombardi's project aimed to survey prevailing attitudes.

Her experiment even yielded some unexpected results: While most answered her true/false inquiries correctly, an overwhelming number of students incorrectly supposed that alcohol was less harmful to a child in utero than cocaine or heroin. "It's the opposite," she said.

The projects ranged from sociology and psychology to fine arts and the traditional sciences – a list as diverse as the students who were presenting that evening. And although the outcomes were all obviously different, all of the students on the other side of their accomplishment could agree on one thing: It was definitely worth it.

"I wanted to distinguish myself as a student," said Josh Smith Sztabor, whose presentation on social Darwinism taught him much about political motivations on both sides of the aisle and how those motivations trickled down to the people on Main Street. "And in the process, I learned a lot about the complexity of politics."

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Last Updated: 4/1/15