By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Emma Sutko was visibly nervous as she stared at the large tarantula.
“My heart rate is kind of going up right now,” she said as her hands started to sweat.
“I’m just going to go for it.”
The Lincoln Pius X High School senior faced her fear head-on Tuesday during a psychology fair hosted by the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
As the oversize arachnid crawled across her arm, Sutko’s opinion of the creepy creature quickly changed.
“I kind of like it,” she said before calling the hairy spider “kind of cute.”
The exercise she took part in focused on desensitization, a psychological technique that treats phobias by exposing people to something they’re afraid of. In this case, snakes and spiders.
Dozens of hands-on demonstrations highlighting a range of research and applications were featured at the event organized by UNK’s Department of Psychology.
Chris Waples, an assistant psychology professor at UNK, said the goal is to generate excitement about psychology and encourage attendees to take a closer look at the field.
“It gives high school students and their teachers a better sense of what the field represents,” Waples said. “Psychology is frequently pigeonholed into clinical counseling, but it’s really a much broader field than that.”
More than 300 students from 30 Nebraska high schools attended the psychology fair, where they explored topics such as the brain’s anatomy, canine behavioral training, emotional intelligence, personality testing and electrodermal activity, which uses changes in the skin’s electrical properties to measure emotional responses.
Other exhibits inside the Nebraskan Student Union Ponderosa Room showed attendees how to decipher a baby’s cries and evaluate toys for developmental appropriateness, and another explained how headphones can negatively impact hearing.
UNK junior Shyann Cochrane called psychology a “very underrated” field.
“There’s so much you can do in psychology,” she said. “It’s not just clinical psychology with someone sitting at a desk while you’re lying on a couch. I think it’s very beneficial to bring to light all the things you can do with it.”
Cochrane, a psychology major from Kearney, ran a station that challenged students to identify different scents contained in small, plastic cups. Only a couple of people got them all correct.
“The men really struggle with cinnamon,” Cochrane said. “That’s because women have better scent (olfactory) receptors than men.”
Cochrane also noted that people have an emotional connection to many scents, such as the lilac bushes in grandma’s front yard or the coconut lotion a sister used in high school.
Drew Fritson of Kearney, a sophomore at UNK studying psychology and computer science, said Tuesday’s event is a fun way for high schoolers to check out psychology and the different ways it can be applied.
Health psychology, for instance, focuses on how mental, emotional and social factors affect a person’s physical well-being. This was represented at the psychology fair using the video game “Mario Kart” to demonstrate the dangers of texting while driving.
For Ryan Pollock, a UNK graduate who teaches English and psychology at Palmyra Junior/Senior High School, the psychology fair is an excellent experiential learning opportunity for his students that enhances what he’s teaching them in the classroom.
“When I have the opportunity to do something like this with the kids, I take advantage of it,” he said.
Although psychology is an elective course, Pollock doesn’t have any trouble finding students who are interested in the subject.
“Once kids get into it, they’re really excited about it,” he said. “It’s amazing how many former students I’ve had who have gone on to become psychology majors.”
That’s another goal for Waples, who wants the 100-plus UNK students involved with the psychology fair to share their enthusiasm with the high schoolers in attendance.
“We see it sort of energizing the students who come to attend, and we also see it energizing our own majors and minors,” he said.