Gemstone Honors Program

Class of 2008 Teams

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is a prevalent and consequential activity that many college students engage in. Traditionally, research on college drinking has relied heavily on self-report surveys, which often may be at variance with actual consumption levels. The Binge Drinking Team has designed a project that used breathalyzers to collect objective measures of student drinking. We aimed to find correlations between college students’ perceived versus actual blood alcohol concentrations (BAC), positive and negative consequences experienced as a result of drinking, and students’ opinions of those consequences. Ultimately, we wanted to examine some reasons why students drink. The study included both a field and follow-up online survey. Our study revealed that the average BAC of our sample population was just below the legal driving limit of .08. Furthermore, BAC proved to be a predictor of both positive and negative consequences from drinking. Our research also provides a sense of the severity of these negative events attributed to drinking from a student’s perspective. We used this information to shed some light on an individual’s perception of risk and how this shapes decisions to consume alcohol. This research hopefully will assist college health professionals to better tailor alcohol education programs by elucidating certain factors that may contribute to excessive drinking and suggesting topics that students perceive to be problematic.

CRABS: Chesapeake Revitalization and Bay Solutions

The use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture is widespread. The goal of our study was to assess the prevalence of antibiotic resistance among Escherichia coli in the water of Maryland wetlands. In cooperation with the Maryland Department of the Environment, we selected thirteen wetland sites for sampling. At each site, we collected surface and sub-surface water samples, along with in situ measurements of pH and dissolved oxygen. We cultured water samples and isolated individual colonies of E.coli and tested for resistance to the antibiotics ampicillin, ciprofloxacin, erythromycin, sulfisoxazole, and tetracycline using disc diffusion. We observed a 72.31% rate of resistance to ampicillin, which was higher than other reports for constructed wetlands (45%). In contrast, no resistance was seen towards ciprofloxacin. Results indicate that statistically significant correlations exist between antibiotic resistance and land use characteristics, between vegetation diversity and land use characteristics, and between surface water chemistry and antibiotic resistance.

CREATIVE: Creative Reading Exercises and their Impact on Valuable Education

Art has been proven to aid students in reading comprehension; however, studies that focus on puppetry as an artistic technique to improve reading comprehension are lacking. This study implemented single subject research with a multiple-baseline design to determine the effects of puppetry on students with learning disabilities in the area of reading. Three students from a private school in Washington, D.C., participated in the study. All three students had known learning disabilities in the area of reading. In pre-intervention sessions with the students, or those sessions lacking puppets, the students read grade-appropriate stories and then were asked to retell any details from the story that they could remember. The students were scored based on the number of story elements they could retell. In the intervention sessions, students read grade-appropriate stories and were then provided with puppets depicting characters from the given story. Utilizing the puppets, the students acted out the story while retelling story elements. Scores were again based on the number of story elements the students could retell when playing with the puppets. After accruing data over the course of twelve retell sessions, it was apparent that the use of puppets in the intervention sessions had a positive impact on the number of story elements the students were able to retell. Puppetry should therefore not be overlooked as a viable artistic technique for improving the reading comprehension of students with learning disabilities.


Campaign websites have become an integral part of a congressional campaign. Most major party candidates now use websites for reaching voters and soliciting financial contributions. However, as technology advances, candidates may adapt their web strategies. We found that studies from previous election cycles show that not all candidates have been fully utilizing the potential of the Internet, and candidates differ in the features they decide to include on their websites. In order to assess the current status of congressional Internet campaigning, we performed a large scale quantitative analysis of all congressional candidates in the 2006 midterm election intended to ascertain how various types of candidates use Internet technology on campaign websites. The many Internet features we studied fall into five categories: informing, mobilization, high-tech, usability, and communication. We analyzed the variables in these categories across candidates of differing parties, positions in the race, racial backgrounds, genders, and electoral successes. Our results show that candidates may be strategically choosing website features to fit their campaign needs, different types of candidates use websites at varying rates, and candidates overall do consistently take advantage of all website tools available. Our research also contradicted a previous trend in the literature that Republican candidates are more Internet savvy than Democratic candidates. We found that often Democratic candidates used high-tech features more than Republicans.

FANATIC: Fitness and Nutrition Awareness to Initiate Change

The goal of our team’s project was to understand the current state of college freshmen’s nutrition and fitness knowledge and to evaluate whether a team-designed website,, which is geared specifically towards this population’s interests and needs, could be an effective means for increasing that knowledge. A randomly selected sample of freshmen at the University of Maryland, College Park was given a pre-test at the beginning of their first semester that included questions about common nutrition and fitness topics, as well as the students’ current habits and stages of change.  During the course of the semester, the students were encouraged to visit the website. At the end of the semester, students were given a post-test, which consisted of the same questions as the pre-test plus a question that asked each student how many times they visited the website.  Our results indicate that visiting the website did not affect the students’ change in knowledge.  However, we did find that the self-selected group of students who chose to visit the website scored significantly higher on the questionnaires and reported having better fitness and nutrition habits and stages of change at both time-points than students who did not choose to visit the website.  This finding leads us to the conclusion that if a website is to be an effective means for increasing the fitness and nutrition knowledge of those who need it most, greater effort would need to be targeted at encouraging those students to utilize it.


The purpose of our study was to analyze the viability of biodiesel as an alternative to petroleum-based transportation fuels.  Biodiesel was evaluated based on its energy content, emissions, and economics.  In order to conduct these analyses, biodiesel derived from waste vegetable oil was obtained from a local, small-scale biodiesel production plant.  Their process of producing biodiesel from waste vegetable oil was studied, and the final product was tested for energy and emissions content.  Biodiesel production’s energy requirements were compared to biodiesels heating values and analysis showed that biodiesel has a favorable energy balance.  Furthermore, the emissions from the combustion of this fuel in a 1983 Mercedes 300SD were analyzed using a raw emissions analyzer.  Emissions testing revealed that the fuel contains significantly decreased concentrations of NOx, CO2, and hyrdocarbons.   Finally, an economic inventory of biodiesel was conducted, taking into account the different cost components of biodiesel and its potential supply.  The combined analyses of the different aspects of biodiesel production led the team to conclude that, with incentives and further research and development, biodiesel could feasibly replace a significant proportion of U.S. petroleum diesel demand.

IAMS-PIE: Investigating Affect & Mental Skill: Performance Influenced by Emotions

Our study aims to ultimately examine the effects of the presence of a pet on self-reported affective state, performance on cognitive tasks, and quality of life of the elderly population. It is comprised of two distinct portions involving two different populations of subjects, in which affective state is manipulated to determine its effect on cognitive ability. The first part of the study involved University of Maryland student participants and administration of direct dog interaction or dog video variables. The second part focused on the elderly population and the use of happy and sad video clips intended to alter affective state.  It was hypothesized that a more positive affective state would result in a higher level of cognitive ability. A similar battery consisting of five to six tests was given to both participant populations after administration of the different variables, with a focus on measuring changes affective state and resulting cognitive function. Although the intended affective state manipulations did not appear to occur, a comprehensive analysis of the results led to an alternate conclusion involving the induction of an anxious affective state after introduction of both the live pet and sad video variables.

MERIT: Medical Error Reduction through Information Technology

Healthcare is an area that has always been subject to continuous improvements by way of technological advances.  Our goal was to research the feasibility of developing a system to improve the quality of patient care, and then to design a system which tracks standard medical protocols within the healthcare setting.  While many systems have been created to address singular issues within the industry, Meritrack seeks to create a full-scale quality assurance system.  The system’s design was based on observations of healthcare practices within the clinical setting and abstracting medical processes into functional units which could be measured and tracked electronically.  A proof of concept, implementation of a small subset of the entire system’s functionality, was completed within the scope of the study.  With this prototype and the success of currently in-place smaller scale systems, Meritrack could be expanded and have an incredible impact on the quality of medical care through its integration into medical facilities around the world.


Our group was inspired to examine the relationship between music and the emotional effects it can have on humans. Through our research, we sought to quantify emotional aspects of music using a computational model of the auditory cortex (cortical model). In our study of music and perceived emotion, we began with the creation of a database of segments of songs and pieces of music. We used a large sample survey of university students to judge the emotional quality of the clips and place them into one of three emotional categories. In the computational part of the project, the clips that reliably demonstrated a perceived emotional quality were processed using the aforementioned cortical model. The output from the model was classified using a Support Vector Machine (SVM), and we compared this classification to the results from the human survey. Using the trained SVM we were able to use the cortical model to create visual representations showing separation between the emotions of happy, sad, and angry. We showed that the classifier could use the output from the cortical model to correctly predict the perceived emotion of a clip approximately 73% of the time. The next step in this project is to perform rigorous quantitative analysis on the results and to attempt to identify which aspects of music contribute to emotional quality. We might even seek to apply the cortical model to more commercial concerns, such as digital music players and musical therapy.

Smart Roads 2

Our team is committed to improving automotive safety on roadways.  We have been studying the various causes of false alarms in lane departure warning systems, a system that activates an alarm to warn drivers when they are unintentionally drifting out of a lane.  The effective use of a lane departure warning system has proven to greatly reduce the number of accidents related to lane departures.  The focus of our research is on driver behavior around tractor trailers on highways.  From our research, we have found that many drivers intentionally veer away from tractor trailers for various reasons.  Unfortunately, the current lane departure warning systems cannot tell the difference between this conscious behavior and the unintentional departure due to driver drowsiness, distraction or negligence.  This causes a bigger issue because the false alarms become an annoyance and result in drivers turning off the system thus making it ineffective.  If the lane departure warning systems could identify when a driver is intentionally approaching the edge of a lane, these false alarms could be eliminated.  Our team has designed an advanced vision-based tracking system to study the trajectories that drivers take when passing tractor trailers.  By mapping these trajectories, we have gained a better understanding of how drivers behave around tractor trailers.  Our results can be used to teach a lane departure warning system to recognize the path a driver would take when intentionally approaching the limits of a lane.  This would consequently eliminate false alarms in the system and help the system do what it was designed to do, save lives.

SWAB: Students Working Against Bacteria

Community-acquired bacterial infections are a major focus of study in modern epidemiology. Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) is a widely studied bacterium that causes infections in both communities and hospitals and is an increasing cause of concern among public health specialists. We conducted a cross-sectional descriptive epidemiological study examining the presence of this organism in individuals among the student population at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMDCP). We selected a sample of students, who were examined for nasal colonization of S. aureus and given surveys about demographic information and lifestyle choices that we believed were possible risk factors for colonization. We determined which individuals were colonized in the laboratory, and statistically analyzed the surveys in order to show links between possible risk factors and nasal colonization. We also tested for the colonization of methicillin resistant S. aureus (MRSA). Our research showed a statistically significant correlation between gender and colonization, and slightly insignificant correlations between handwashing before eating, nosepicking, active membership in a social fraternity or sorority and colonization. The overall colonization rate in our sample, 25.2 percent, was less than the colonization rate of the general population and a statistically significant difference. Finally, we also found several samples colonized with MRSA. Unfortunately, we had too few samples to allow comparison of the UMDCP MRSA colonization rate against the colonization rate of the general population.