Feature

Free and easy to use, the University of Mississippi's PsychExperiments Web site is proving to be a boon for smaller psychology departments.

"We're the prototypical school this was designed for," says Aubyn Fulton, PhD, professor of psychology at Pacific Union College, a liberal arts school with 1,700 students in Angwin, Calif. "With only 120 psychology majors, we don't really have the resources to invest in a lot of real laboratory equipment."

But in a classroom, lab or even a dorm room equipped with computers and online access, students can participate in classic experiments such as facial or word recognition, spatial reasoning or visual illusions; download the data to the PsychExperiments server; and receive the collected and analyzed data--all within 20 minutes.

"In an hour class, that leaves 40 minutes to talk about the results, implications and theory," says Ken McGraw, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi who is one of the site's developers.

Recently renamed PsychExper- iments--the original "PsychExps" appellation proved unpronounceable--the site offers users the unique ability to collect and store experimental data and then have continued access to both those data and experimental data collected by others. Several of the site's experiments have data on as many as 400 participants.

Developed by McGraw, electrical engineer Mark Tew, PhD, and graduate student John Williams, the site is located at www.olemiss.edu/psychexps/. Since it was launched in September 1998, such features have attracted 114 college and high school classes from 86 institutions. Some include such large, well-known institutions as Brown University and Carnegie Mellon University, as well as colleges and universities in Canada and on four other continents. But a large portion of the participating schools are small U.S. institutions, such as Spelman College in Atlanta, Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky., and Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

Before PsychExperiments came along, smaller schools often had to resort to manually conducted experiments with unreliable stopwatch timing; sometimes balky, less sophisticated and much more time-consuming and costly software programs on floppy disks; or online experiments that offered no capability to collect and store the results for future use.

Now, instead of merely discussing psychological phenomena in introductory or learning and cognition psychology courses, students can experience some of these concepts firsthand via PsychExperiments' elaborate online experiments. Students in psychology laboratories get a fine introduction to research methods and phenomena, while psychology statistics students have ample data to crunch.

"It's a wonderful teaching resource," says Kathleen Flannery, associate professor of psychology at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. "Given the demands on technology on small campuses, it would be impossible for me to offer this elaborate stuff on my own server."

As a result, use of the site is increasing rapidly. During the 1998­99 academic year fewer than 2,000 experimental sessions--students or others undergoing a psychological experiment and submitting their results--were completed. That total was exceeded last fall alone, and McGraw expects even more experimental sessions to be completed this spring, since the number of posted experiments--and users--continues to grow. The site is averaging 350 hits per day.

"We're pretty excited about the site," says Andrew Velkey, an assistant professor of psychology at Mississippi College who helped psychology undergraduate student Andi Agnew post an experiment for her senior honors project. "When you can get students involved in their own research, it sets them on the path to where we want them to be going."

PsychExperiments is funded through a three-year, $220,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and with support from the University of Mississippi. Since that grant expires Aug. 31, the site is seeking funding to continue the project from FIPSE and the National Science Foundation.

McGraw is hopeful funding will be secured.

"It's simply been too big of a success," he says, "particularly in terms of the response from the smaller schools. Even we had no idea how critical the need is for smaller schools to be able to offer their students this kind of economical research-based learning experience."



Bruce E. Beans is a writer in Bucks County, Pa.