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One in an occasional series. (More on this series)

In UT program, "citizen-scholars" put knowledge to work

by Rick Cherwitz, Sarah Rodriguez and Julie Sievers*
Austin American-Statesman
December 1, 2002

In addition to being University of Texas graduate students, Harold Chaput, Antony Cherian, Mark Westmoreland, Erin Turner and Rachel McInturff are all intellectual entrepreneurs. Representing different disciplines and possessing distinct goals, all are inspired, appreciate the importance of their expertise and are committed to putting their knowledge to work. They poignantly demonstrate the value of graduate education and research--how young and promising professionals already are contributing to their community.

Harold Chaput

Harold Chaput

Ask Computer Science doctoral candidate Harold Chaput what artificial intelligence and digital technology, the subject of his dissertation, have to do with the lives of people, and the passion driving his research is revealed. "Technology," says Chaput, "is a tool for doing important, fascinating, powerful, beautiful things."

Chaput founded the Austin Museum of Digital Art (AMODA)--the first museum in the world to focus exclusively on digital art. It holds monthly art events, annual exhibitions, and gives local youth organizations access to digital art and technology. Work with AMODA introduced Chaput to the Griffin School, a private school for at-risk youth. In addition to joining the advisory board, Chaput teaches classes in computer programming and web design.

Not content simply with laboratory research, Chaput is using his intellectual resources to make a difference in the lives of Austin residents. He is one example of how graduate students are "citizen-scholars."

What is a "citizen-scholar"?

Like Chaput, many students desire the most from their degree. While discovering new knowledge is essential, large numbers of students develop a passion for utilizing knowledge in non-academic settings That's why UT developed the "Intellectual Entrepreneurship" (IE) program. Through courses and community-based synergy groups, UT students receive hands-on opportunities to discover their passion, explore the value of disciplinary expertise and acquire tools to leverage their knowledge--whether in corporate, non-profit, government or academic venues.

IE educates "citizen-scholars"-people who believe research has enormous value and should be put to work. Citizen-scholars understand that knowledge carries with it an obligation to act. Given a chance to reflect on what matters, IE students frequently discover a deep-seated desire to use their knowledge to contribute to the community.

Antony Cherian

Antony Cherian

Using education as a lever for social good is one mark of a citizen-scholar. Anthropology doctoral candidate Mark Westmoreland and Library and Information Science master's candidate Antony Cherian created a documentary for Dr. Martha Norkunas' IE class on "Interpreting the Texas Past." The class case was Washington County, the home of the Barrington Living History Farm, where Anson Jones--the last president of the Texas Republic--lived. Recognizing that the area's large African-American population was represented minimally at the museum, Texas Parks and Wildlife asked Norkunas' class to find ways to better represent the community's rich history.

"We wanted to create this film with as much sensitivity as possible," says Cherian. "We did not want to create a scandalous film based only on past events like lynching--we wanted to let the residents talk about what was really important to them."

The result, "Truth I Ever Told," was the culmination of interviews with three multi-generational families. The video was screened for Washington County residents during the editing process to ensure accuracy. Diligence and respect paid off--in addition to benefiting the museum and documenting the previously untold history of the Washington County community, "Truth I Ever Told" received the 2002 Zora Neale Hurston Prize for its contribution to African-American Folklore.

Using research

Erin Turner

Erin Turner

UT "citizen-scholars" also contribute to the community through research. Mathematics Education doctoral candidate Erin Turner is passionate about the positive impact of her dissertation. "Students have investigated issues of social justice through reading and history," she says. "We wanted to investigate them through mathematics."

While working in a South Harlem middle school, Turner collaborated with classroom teacher Beatriz Font to devise lesson plans associating math with students' real-life problems. For example, students learned to calculate perimeter and area, using their skills to determine the ratio of school space per child. Their findings--that their school had a smaller classroom space to student ratio than other district middle schools--resulted in students being distributed more equally the following year.

Turner's initiative created positive change. "We had students who thought they weren't smart suddenly talking and wanting to do projects," Turner says. "They started to see how math could improve their lives."

Rachel McInturff

Rachel McInturff

Rachel McInturff, a Music Composition doctoral student, also is using her expertise to assist others. McInturff, whose dissertation is a composition of original music incorporating electronic sounds, is the Music Technical Director of the Austin Lyric Opera's Armstrong Community Music School. This school is unique, she says, because "Anyone, regardless of experience or knowledge or age or background, can enroll in classes."

Ranging greatly in age and ability, McInturff's students share two qualities: a love of music and an enthusiastic drive to learn. Because electronic music is a relatively new field, instructors who are willing to nurture students' creativity are a rare find. "So many people literally bring their dreams to my doorstep," says McInturff. "It's an honor to help with their accomplishments."

Like the other "citizen-scholars," McInturff's work exemplifies the importance of graduate education and research.

Countless UT students are intellectual entrepreneurs, desiring opportunities to benefit their disciplines and society. McInturff hopes to remain at the Armstrong Community Music School. Turner will continue working with bilingual students in math. Chaput, Cherian and Westmoreland are contemplating their many options.

Whatever exciting careers they choose, UT's graduate student "citizen-scholars" already are contributing to their community. Following their passions, they will continue leveraging knowledge to enrich society.

*Cherwitz is Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program (IE) at UT, where Rodriguez is a master's candidate in Library and Information Science and Sievers is a doctoral candidate in English.