Written by Thomas Huber
“Excellence: First among the College’s shared values is a commitment to high quality and excellence in all that we do.” This statement of one of Gustavus Adolphus College’s core values is embodied in the faculty–student engagement that is a hallmark of a Gustavus education.
Instead of passive learning, Gustavus faculty design activities ranging from course assignments to intense faculty–student collaborative projects that allow students to become active participants in their own education. Students, and faculty, excel by developing these creative collaborations.
The summer provides a unique opportunity for high-quality, in-depth faculty–student collaboration. This is a productive time when both faculty members and students can really delve into their research and creative projects.
During the summer of 2011, more than 35 students were involved in original, scholarly work with Gustavus faculty members; these student–faculty collaborations involved work across the disciplines, including science, education, art, economics and management, and theatre and dance.
Some students were supported by major grants that faculty members have obtained from the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The other major funding source was endowments established by alumni and friends of the College to support student research.
Among the endowed projects were five student–faculty teams that received Gustavus Presidential Faculty–Student Presidential Grants:
- Priscilla Briggs, associate professor of art, and Blong Lor ’12: “Video and Photo-based Artworks”;
- Jeff Dahlseid ’90, associate professor of biology and chemistry, and Xiao Xiu ’12: “Function of Nereis Diversicolor Metalloprotein II (MPII) in Cadmium Resistance”;
- Dan Moos, assistant professor of education, and Alyssa Ringdal ’12: “Supporting Self-Regulated Learning in the Classroom: Past, Present, and Future”;
- Amanda Nienow, assistant professor of chemistry, and Maja Johnson ’13: “Photolysis of Imidazolinone Herbicides on Cuticle Waxes”; and
- Dwight Stoll, assistant professor of chemistry, and Tuan Tran ’13: “Characterization of Carbon-Laminated Silicas for Use in Hydrophilic Interaction Liquid Chromatography.”
As an international student from Vietnam, Tuan Tran said that the opportunity to do on-campus research was particularly valuable. “If I can use only one word to describe the experience I gained during summer, it should be ‘fantastic.’ I got the chance to work with lots of complex instruments used in analytical chemistry. I think this was first time in my life that I could use what I learned to actually do something that would give results that I didn’t know before!”
Studying a specific protein in hagworms would not be most students’ choice for a summer research project; however, Xiao Xiu begs to differ. “The project is interesting because the hagworms have been shown to live in sediments contaminated with toxic metals at levels that are usually incompatible with the survival of biological organisms,” she says. “Our lab is interested in exploring whether the MPII protein has a role in helping the hagworms live in such an environment.”
Faculty-student collaboration doesn’t have to take place in a lab. Dan Moos and Alyssa Ringdal prepared a literature review on the topic of the teacher’s role in self-regulated learning, and have submitted it for publication. Because the work was done on the computer, Alyssa says, “we were able to work remotely and communicate through e-mail and Skype. It was a great experience that has prepared me for future research and professional development.”
Similarly, Priscilla Briggs and Blong Lor did a photographic project in the Minneapolis area reflecting on the merging of Hmong and American culture. “We decided to focus specifically on Hmong culture for two reasons: because the Hmong culture in Minnesota, a large and rich territory, provides an abundance of material for our project, and because Blong is a young Hmong man living between and navigating two cultures.” They are scheduled to exhibit one of their grid pieces (which will include about 16 images) in a group exhibition titled “Intersections” to be mounted at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Jan. 17–Feb. 26, 2012.
These research experiences are invaluable for the students involved. Reflecting on the great impact this had for his student, Xiao Xiu, Associate Professor Jeff Dahlseid ’90 says, “These experiences will deepen Xiao’s preparation and increase her desirability as an applicant for whatever she pursues after Gustavus.” Similarly, Assistant Professor Amanda Nienow says of her student, Maja Johnson, “This experience will provide Maja one more piece of information as she continues to explore her vocational desires and career goals.”
In the spirit of the liberal arts, summer faculty–student research at Gustavus is much more than academic work in a narrow area. Students and faculty on campus during the summer have rich opportunities outside of their collaborative projects. During the past summer, there were weekly noontime student presentations. The students had the invaluable opportunity to present their project to an audience that ranged from professors and students who were very familiar to their research to faculty members and students in completely different academic disciplines. These research presentations helped students to better understand and express the underpinnings of their project, while exposing them to projects in other areas. There were also social activities including movie nights, a weekly gathering for snacks and conversation, a pizza party, and even a canoe trip.
After a successful summer, students and their faculty mentors continue to work together on these projects during the academic year. This fall, students involved in summer faculty–student research projects have presented their findings at an on-campus research symposium, displayed posters at the Nobel Conference, and worked with their advisers preparing papers for publication and presentations for regional and national meetings.
Academic excellence is one of our core values, and summer faculty–student collaboration is one of many manifestations of Gustavus’s high-quality undergraduate education.
Thomas Huber, a member of the physics faculty since 1989, is the faculty associate for undergraduate research in the John S. Kendall Center for Engaged Learning. For the past six summers, his acoustics research students have been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation.
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