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UMd. students react to debate in real time

Thursday - 10/4/2012, 7:53am  ET

University of Maryland Debate Watch (WTOP/Madeline Tallman)
At the Colony Ballroom in the Stamp Student Union, students react to the debate in real time. (WTOP/Madeline Tallman)
Madeline Tallman, special to WTOP.com

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Students at the University of Maryland watched and recorded their reactions to the first presidential debate using a new technology that collected real-time reactions to the candidate's points and publicly displayed the data.

At Wednesday night's Debate Watch, a university-hosted event on campus, students went to a website, called React Labs, on their smart phones, tablets and laptops while watching the debate. As President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spoke, students tapped buttons on their screens indicating whether they agreed with what the candidates just said or if they thought a candidate was spinning or dodging a question.

Roughly 500 students watched the debate on a big projection screen. On a neighboring screen was a display of how participants reacted in the React Labs poll. A graph with blue and red peaks and plateaus indicated the real-time polling results.

"What's important is that it's not just a question you ask afterwards. It's how people are actually understanding and reacting to what the candidates are saying as they're saying it," says Philip Resnik, creator of React Labs and University of Maryland professor of computer science.

In this mainly solo, year-and-a-half project, Resnik's interest in how political language can manipulate an audience's views fueled the making and research for the website.

"You could say it's revolutionary. It's taking politics in an area that it should go," says freshman J.T. Stanley.

Resnik recorded a rather equal mix of Obama and Romney supporters in the audience.

Maryland students weren't the only ones to participate, however. More than 2,000 students in institutions around the country participated in the polling.

The event also was an opportunity to launch a new online voter registration website specifically for University of Maryland students. TerpsVote is a campus- wide coalition to promote registration, encourage early voting, and educate students about local issues, particularly referendums on the Maryland ballot.

In two days since the initial launch of the voter registration website, TerpsVote tallied 450 registration forms from students.

Student Government Association President Samantha Zwerling demonstrated how to register using the website, taking about 2 minutes to complete the form.

"It shows that the University of Maryland is a leader in the country for making sure that their students are civically engaged," says Zwerling.

She was formerly registered to vote in New Jersey, but waited to change her status so she could use the new system.

"If students voted more, then we would see friendlier policies toward higher education," she said.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)