The commonly held belief that a goldfish’s memory is only a few seconds long was one of the myths debunked by psychology professor Donna Thompson, Ph.D., and her student, James Winkelman, during a recent visit by local youths to an animal behavior laboratory at Niagara University.

This past November, the Levesque Institute welcomed a group of about 15 youths, ages 11-17, to Niagara University’s campus for a series of weekly visits as part of a pilot “Experience College” program.

The teens came from The Connection, a drop-in center located on the north end of Main Street in Niagara Falls. The Connection is a safe space in the community where teenagers can spend time doing homework, engaging in health- and education-focused activities, and even relaxing in a welcoming and nurturing environment.

On their first visit, Dr. David Taylor, director of the Levesque Institute, welcomed the youths and gave them a brief tour of campus and an introduction to the Experience College program.

Isaac De Los Santos, a graduate assistant in multicultural affairs, then spoke with the students about his experiences at Niagara as well as about the many opportunities that await them, should they decide to attend college.

The first day concluded with an invitation by men’s basketball coach Chris Casey to that afternoon’s team practice in the Gallagher Center gym. The students received an unexpected surprise when the players came into the stands to give high-fives, shake hands and speak with the youths.

The second visit centered on the Castellani Art Museum, where the museum director, Katherine Koperski, took the youths on a behind-the-scenes tour, showing off the impressive artwork that is housed in the museum. For most of the students, it was the first time they had been in a museum, a great opportunity to see the permanent collection of Armand and Eleanor Castellani: Art for the Public Eye, as well as recent acquisitions from the Castellani grandchildren. The youths also spent time in the Gallagher Center where they played pool, watched television and interacted with NU students sharing the space.

On the last day, the students visited the psychology department, where Dr. Thompson and Winkelman are training goldfish, through the principle of reinforcement, to do tricks before receiving food. Each fish had a different trick, one pressing its nose to a dot in the center of a spoon before receiving food, a second that swam through a hoop before receiving its dinner. Perhaps the most impressive trick was the fish that learned how to “kick” a small soccer ball into a net before receiving its dinner. This visit to the psychology department got the students really excited, and was a perfect display of the many interesting and unique aspects of the education that Niagara provides. The day (and the program) concluded with a buffet dinner in Clet Hall.

The benefits of bringing the youths to campus are substantial. The programs and activities that they were exposed to got them excited about college, something that may not have been on their radar before the visits. Bringing them to NU’s campus was specifically beneficial to let the students learn more about Niagara University, a college that is right in their backyard. The youths left campus excited about what they had seen, and with a new view of college and the opportunities it presents them – with several asking when they could come back.

The Levesque Institute was established in September 2011 to reinforce Niagara University’s commitment to the region by strengthening existing community partnerships and forming new town-gown relationships. The institute also serves as the primary resource for community members looking to partner with NU’s student, faculty and staff.

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