Three of Ball State University’s junior faculty are hoping to make an impact in their fields of energy, architecture and social work. Their work may have far-reaching effects, which is why they were named this year’s 2015-16 research competition award winners.

Separately, the trio, Tom CollinsZhihai Li, and Matt Moore, is looking into effective energy conversion systems, improving the quality of Interactive Learning Space classrooms and addressing student-athletes’ mental health concerns. The primary purpose of this award competition is to give up to $15,000 for research and projects that will lead to further support from external funders. Those in their first five years of a tenure-track appointment may apply. Sponsored Projects Administration oversees the Aspire internal grant program, which hands out the awards. Read more about the award winners.

Dr. Tom Collins records level readings from an Interactive Learning Space in the Burkhardt Building

Dr. Tom Collins records level readings from an Interactive Learning Space in the Burkhardt Building

How well are interactive learning space classrooms performing?

In kindergarten, Tom Collins, Ph.D. knew he wanted to be an architect. Growing up, he was surrounded by the art of the profession. He lived in a house built by his great-grandfather, and his father introduced him to many architects. These professionals gave Collins architecture magazines and let him spend time in their offices, further immersing him in the profession.

“I really can’t imagine another career that would suit me better.”

Collins describes his main study interest as how buildings work. As Assistant Professor of Architecture, Collins studies building occupancy and how it affects occupants’ well-being. He also compares how occupants use buildings with how designers predicted buildings would be used. This knowledge can help improve building design and operation.

In his research, Collins evaluates how well buildings meet their designers’ goals and intentions. He’ll use his award to evaluate the conditions and occupant satisfaction of Ball State University’s Interactive Learning Space (ILS) classrooms. So far in his research Collins has found that buildings are rarely designed in ways that let researchers easily measure and validate the performance of these buildings, leading to a gap in research.

“In general, the goal of my research is to provide those who design and operate buildings with fine-grained feedback that can help them make better decisions,” Collins said.

How do these spaces function for users?

Collins’ research project, “EQuALS: Environmental Quality in Active Learning Spaces,” will address the gap in research. This will be done by examining indoor environmental quality in campus’s five Interactive Learning Space classrooms. He and a graduate student will look at factors such as air quality, lighting, noise, and thermal comfort.

ILS classrooms are part of an initiative to support contemporary teaching methods as opposed to traditional lectures. Through this program, Ball State seeks to implement engaged learning methods, such as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, and team-based earning. ILS classrooms began 25 years ago in North Carolina State University’s SCALE-Up program. According to Collins, the goals of these classrooms are to improve student learning, change the way instructors engage with students, and offer increased flexibility and access to technology.

Most research primarily focuses on the virtual learning environment, so research on the physical environment is scarce. What little research there is, suggests the physical conditions of these classrooms can influence learning outcomes.

For his study, Collins said he will observe the five classrooms and their occupants, survey occupant satisfaction and take spot measurements of the rooms’ environmental quality. It’s what’s called the basic-level evaluation procedure for post-occupancy. His study focuses on five Ball State classrooms.

In the summer of 2016, Collins began study preparation work including purchasing equipment, documenting spaces, interviewing those who use Interactive Learning Spaces. Collins also began measuring various environmental quality factors in the rooms.

Watching and interviewing students

The spaces will also be observed when students are present, either while in the room or by using video. After completing the physical classroom research, Collins and his assistant will survey students to gauge their satisfaction with the rooms.

“The surveys will be an important piece that will provide insight into what the users think of the quality of their learning environments,” Collins said.

Collins is analyzing data now and hopes to provide recommendations that may influence the use of ILS’ in the future. He said he plans to publish his findings addressing the need for research that “provides a better understanding of physical environmental conditions in higher education classrooms.”

“Much of my research has examined the role of buildings and building performance in campus sustainability efforts. Ball State’s robust and well-regarded sustainability efforts make the campus an ideal site for inquiry,” Collins said.

Collins says the university has been exceptionally supportive of his research. “I’ve only been on campus for a short time, but I already feel connected to resources and people that can assist me in my scholarly work.” Collins plans to wrap up this research in the spring.

Using light energy for electricity
Dr. Li performs tests in his lab

Dr. Li performs tests in his lab

Assistant professor of chemistry Zhihai Li, PhD is working on a system to convert energy without harming the environment. He received the maximum Aspire Junior Faculty Research award for preliminary research on environmentally benign energy conversion systems. Li focuses on solar cell systems which convert solar energy to electricity. According to Li, the cost to convert light energy into electricity on an industrial scale is high due to costly materials and fabrication processes. He hopes his research will help solve energy shortages and environmental pollution problems through nanotechnology, the science and technology of nanoscale devices and materials.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop some novel nanomaterials that are more efficient and economic than the current popular titanium dioxide (TiO2),” Li said in an email interview. Li went on to say nickel tungstate (NiWO4) is the best candidate for the application in solar cells due to its low cost.

Li’s project consists of three main priorities. The first is to synthesize functional nanomaterials that can be used in the light harvesting and can improve light conversion efficiency and then “dope” the nickel tungstate nanomaterials with different metal ions. “Doping” means impurities are introduced to the semiconductor to change its electrical properties.

So far, Li and his team have successfully synthesized three types of nickel tungstate -based nanomaterials. This process will help them better understand how well the solar cells can convert solar energy into electricity. They will assess these capabilities using photo-electrochemical techniques with and without the presence of light.

“Our experiments and discoveries will advance the current understanding of doping other metals on photon to electron efficiency, especially on solar cells—a clean energy system—thus having a long-lasting impact on the energy industry, fundamental science, and environmental protection,” Li explains.

The second priority is to characterize these nanomaterials using various microscopy techniques such as transmission electron, atomic force, and scanning tunneling.

Lastly, they will use prepared nanomaterials to evaluate how well the solar cells they make can convert light energy to electricity. To do this, they plan to “develop low cost and high-efficiency materials and optimize the fabrication process,” Li said. These new materials will help improve solar-to-electric conversion efficiency and reduce the cost of materials and fabrication processes.

Grad student excited about helping with research

“In short, we are trying to develop solar cells using novel nanomaterials and dyes to explore properties and functionalities of these materials in term of solar cells’ performance, for example, photo-electron conversion efficiency,” Li said. He and his team have already developed a procedure to make solar cells’ properties measurable.

Currently, these materials are being sorted and prepared for closer study.

Li works with about a half dozen students on this project including Amirhoseein Hosseini, a graduate student.

“I’m so excited to be in this lab and to participate in all ongoing research,” Hosseini said. He assists mainly with preparing nanomaterials and creating protocols for solar cell fabrication.

“Specifically, working under the supervision of Dr. Li is so interesting since he has a great vision toward the future of research, and he is constantly trying to enable students to think independently, meantime providing for them an amicable atmosphere in which researchers can cherish and enjoy their time in the lab,” Hosseini said.

Hosseini lists many opportunities he has had while working under Li, such as traveling to national conferences, meeting colleagues, and setting up advanced photo-electrochemical instruments. Thanks to these experiences, Hosseini was admitted to Indiana University to complete his doctoral studies and has received job offers. Heather Ramey, Andrew Riley, and Anna-Kay West are also student researchers on this project.

In addition to student participation, Li acknowledges the great support from his fellow faculty. “Ball State has a wonderful academic atmosphere, so that faculty can be devoted to science and inspired from each other. We faculty strongly support each other,” Li said. Richard Fluegeman, Klaus Neumann, Kirsten Nicholson, and Tykhon Zubkov all have a hand in this project. Without them, Li said, “It is hard to imagine how our project could have proceeded.”

Li said researchers from Northwestern University, Ohio University, Texas State University and the University of New York are interested in collaborating on his project.

De-stigmatizing mental health issues for student athletes
Dr. Matt Moore was a Sports Social Worker by research and practice. He teaches several social welfare policy-related courses on campus. This one was in the Robert Bell Building.

Dr. Matt Moore was a Sports Social Worker by research and practice. He teaches several social welfare policy-related courses on campus. This one was in the Robert Bell Building.

Whether it’s a home run at Wrigley Field or the winning shot at Madison Square Garden, sports are an integral aspect of American culture. Many of us thrive on sports—so much so that sports are integrated into our education, starting in elementary school. When many people think about high school and college sporting events, it brings back festive images of homecoming and singing the school fight song. However, there is a more alarming side of school athletics not often spoken about.

Research by the NCAA suggests that sports-related injuries often trigger or uncover serious mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse or use, and other psychological disorders.

In response to this issue, the NCAA released recommendations earlier this year in March, to promote the mental health of college athletes. These recommendations include referring college athletes to psychological care, addressing risks during pre-season physical exams, establishing standards for approaching athletes with psychological risks, and routine evaluations.

Junior Faculty award winner Assistant Professor Matt Moore, Ph.D. hopes to de-stigmatize mental health help among student athletes. He will use his award to support research in this area.

Moore believes various factors influence whether a college athlete seeks mental health services. Those include societal stigmas about mental health, concerns that a helping professional won’t understand athletic culture and identity, time constraints of being a student and athlete and even not knowing about available services.

“My current research is exploring how social workers can play a larger role in ensuring the health and well-being of student-athletes, especially as it relates to their mental health,” Moore said.

Interprofessional approach

In the social work field, there is very little crossover with the world of sports. Moore said there are only a handful of researchers who study the integration of social work and sports. Through his work, Moore hopes to explore an interprofessional approach to promote the mental health of college athletes. He calls it the sport social work model.

Through this model, he writes that he hopes to show “how the core values and ethical principles of the social work profession, paired with a strong understanding of sport culture and athlete identity, can promote disclosure of psychosocial challenges.”

For those who work closely with athletes, education and training will be developed about how to intervene in athletes’ lives. Moore’s research will also include training about how to engage with those athletes affected by psychosocial risks.

“The exploration of such a model, along with the efforts of current professionals involved in athletics, could impact thousands of college athletes in need of psychosocial help,” Moore writes. In addition to training, he also wants more education and preventive work to identify athletes with greater risks of mental health issues.

Moore describes his research as client-centered and hopes to provide all athletes with the highest level of mental health care.

To begin his research, Moore will gather responses from a web-based survey for quantitative results. This survey will be administered to a random sample of college athletes from NCAA member institutions. Athletes will be introduced to, then asked to compare the effect of the sport social work model to the current service structure. These questions will address athlete perceptions of seeking services and existing service barriers. Moore also will conduct a focus group with Ball State University student-athletes. Group members will discuss the model in hopes of producing quantitative results.

By the time the research ends, Moore hopes that athletes will feel more comfortable about seeking mental health services and that the social service model will break down any barriers.

Glenn Stone, the chairperson of the social work department, said, “Dr. Moore’s research would put forth a model of service delivery for this population that would have social work as an integral partner in assisting student-athletes.”

Moore plans to finish his project in Fall 2016 then prepare his materials for publication and presentation.


This article was written by Briana Lomax.