A group of polished scholars

Gemstone program has best, brightest tackle social ills

May 22, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park have impressed professional criminologists with a proposal to track sex offenders released from prison using satellite-based Global Positioning System technology.

The idea for this high-tech alternative to incarceration didn't come from UMCP's faculty or even from graduate students. It came from a team of undergraduates in the university's Gemstone program, which takes the best and brightest freshmen entering school and sets them to work on some of society's thorniest problems.

Started five years ago, the program combines some of the hottest trends in higher education, with its emphasis on teamwork, interdisciplinary study and original undergraduate research.

The second group of Gemstone seniors - 96 of UMCP's 3,900 graduates - will receive their diplomas Thursday. For the participants, it has been a demanding but rewarding trek.

"It had its ups and downs," says Michael Schechter of spending countless hours the last four years debating, researching, writing and presenting with a group of his peers - all for a handful of credits and a Gemstone designation on his diploma.

"But if I had the choice to do it again, I would," says Schechter, whose team worked on alternatives to prison.

Invitations to join the program are sent to the top high school seniors who have already been admitted to Maryland's highly competitive honors program. Between 100 and 200 join Gemstone each year.

"The average SAT of entering Gemstone students is 1,500," says its director, Christopher C. Davis, an engineering professor. "That would make it the seventh-ranked school in the country for selectivity, just off of Stanford."

Deciding as a high school senior to join a prestigious honors program is one thing. Sticking with it for four years - especially when the payoff from all the work is not readily apparent - is another. About a third of the students drop out along the way.

Most of those who make it say they are glad they did.

"Any time you get 15 people in a room and try do something, there are going to be some frustrations," says senior Margaret Sheer of Columbia. "But I'm really proud of what we did. When I think about it - and sometimes I'm surprised by this - we did a lot."

Sheer, who is majoring in Spanish and environmental science and policy, is on a team considered one of the more successful among this year's graduates.

Her group started out looking at one of the nation's most intractable problems - finding a safe place to dispose of nuclear power plant waste. The federal government's proposal to bury it in Nevada's remote Yucca Mountain has been bogged down in scientific and political debate.

"We quickly realized that we are not nuclear chemists, so there is no way we could evaluate the use of that site," says Bob Kucner, a mechanical engineering major from Timonium who came up with the idea for the project.

Eventually, the team decided to focus on the problem of moving the waste, taking no position on the use of nuclear power, but pointing out that tons of radioactive waste exist that must go somewhere.

"Transportation is really the Achilles' heel of the whole nuclear waste issue," says Kucner.

In a series of presentations, two to the American Chemical Society, the group stressed that any disposal site would be useless if there is no way to convince the public that the waste can be safely transported. Last year, the group was honored by the chemical society for the best paper by a new member, unheard of for a bunch of undergraduates.

Charles Wellford, a professor of criminology, had a similar experience with the group he advises that looked at prison reform and presented a paper to the American Society of Criminology.

"It was very well-received," says Wellford. "People would ask me if these were my best graduate students. I'd tell them they were undergraduates, and they couldn't believe it."

As with the nuclear waste group, the prison reform students narrowed their initial topic, looking at alternatives to incarceration and eventually coming up with a plan to use GPS technology to monitor sex offenders while they undergo treatment.

"When you come in as freshmen, you think you can change the world," Schechter says. "Then reality sets in. But we got something done - not as much as we originally hoped, but hopefully the groundwork for something that will make a difference in the future."

Wellford says the state of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice has expressed interest in the program his students devised.

"I think this group created something that really is new," Wellford says.

All Gemstone freshmen take a couple of courses together. But the main work of that first year is to come up with ideas for projects. At the end of the year, the freshmen choose which to pursue and divide into groups. For most of the rest of their time at Maryland, they get two credits a semester for working on the project, which is presented as a group thesis in senior year.

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