Wash Awarded Prestigious NSF CAREER Grant

Posted on: March 11, 2014

Rick Walsh

Assistant Professor Rick Wash has received one of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) most prestigious and competitive awards for junior researchers - a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant.

Wash, who has a joint appointment in the School of Journalism and the Media and Informationdepartment, was awarded a five-year, $489,678 CAREER grant to study online communities - how they are formed, how they shape expectations about the future of the community, how they co-evolve with the community over time, and how they form a critical mass that is essential for successful work and community survival.

"This grant will allow me to continue my work understanding how people make reasoned decisions about their use of technology and will allow me to continue discovering more about how groups function online," Wash said. "It will help me to explore in detail how online groups develop, how people decide whether they should participate in these groups, and whether they should keep participating once they have joined."

CAREER awards recognize promising faculty in the early stages of their career who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research.

Wash's research, titled "Mental Models and Critical Mass: Shaping the Success of Online Communities," will help in designing, managing and participating in many kinds of online communities and will contribute to information, cognitive and social sciences education.

"One of the most important and valuable features of the Internet is that people can get together in groups to discuss interesting topics and work together. However, creating and sustaining these online communities is really difficult; most fail to generate much interest and die before they get really interesting," Wash said. "The goal of my research is to understand how people make reasoned decisions about their use of technology. I hope to use this understanding of people's decision-making process to design better tools and techniques for helping people make good decisions and for encouraging participation and support of online groups."

As part of the study, a unique, cross-disciplinary education program will be created to train students to use this research to build special-purpose online communities. A joint class will be offered beginning this fall that links the School of Journalism with the Media and Informationdepartment. The class will form cross-disciplinary teams that will spend a semester creating and growing an online community.

"This will represent a new type of education in journalism that will bring students into new, community-driven methods of doing journalism, based more on curating content and facilitating discussion than on original, unidirectional reporting," Wash said.

Students in the class will be taught to apply social science and computer science research for real-world applications and how to work on collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams that include both technical and creative people as well as topic experts.

"I am hoping that students come away from this class understanding the large variety of different ways that people can talk together and work together on the Internet, understand both the technical and the social challenges of doing so, and be able to address those challenges and build online communities that are sustained and valuable," Wash said.

Wash is one of the primary investigators in the Behavior, Information and Technology (BIT) Lab, a group of social science and technology researchers in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.

The grant will support at least one Ph.D. student for five years and a number of undergraduate or master student research assistants. It also will help support the BITLab and the research being produced there.

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