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Innovative SOFIA program has grown to 75 students

Barry McNamara
Farida Mohammed '18 of Accra, Ghana, explains her group's SOFIA project to Lila Blum during the poster presentations Aug. 19.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – In less than a decade, Monmouth College’s Summer Opportunity for Intellectual Activity has already evolved beyond what some anticipated when it started.

That sentiment was expressed by a visitor to the poster presentations of SOFIA projects, held Aug. 19 in a crowded Mellinger Commons in the Center for Science and Business.

“SOFIA has grown so much!” the visitor said.

Indeed it has.

What began with 30 students in 2010 has grown to 75 students, including more than 50 incoming freshmen. This year’s SOFIA students arrived on campus July 30, and the presentation of their research posters allowed them to show results of three weeks of research on 17 projects. Some of the research was conducted off-campus through a series of field trips.

“People didn’t think you could do this type of academic work with incoming freshmen, but you can,” said physics professor Chris Fasano, who coordinates the program with faculty colleagues Laura Moore and Christine Myers. “The returning students are so important to this, and they also help with the social side of the three weeks.”

Studying the solar eclipse

Among this year’s off-campus experiences was an Aug. 21 road trip to Fulton, Mo., where students working with Associate Professor of Physics Ashwani Kumar were in the band of totality for the solar eclipse.

“If I had to put it into words ... I couldn’t,” said senior Joel Mota of Chicago, who studied “Astrophotography: Monitoring Near-Earth Objects” with Kumar and two freshmen. “The ominous change to sunset at the horizon and near dark overhead was slightly uncomfortable, as nature could not be more out of place, but in perfect harmony all at the same time. Venus was visible and everything went silent like time had stopped. I honestly felt a little sick.”

The group, which tracked five near-Earth objects as part of their SOFIA research, was accompanied to Missouri by several members of the campus community, including biology lab manager Kathy Mainz, who reported that the temperature dropped 17 degrees during totality.

“To me, it’s an absolute wonder of nature, and I wanted to experience it for myself,” said Mainz. “It was wonderful to be around people who wanted to celebrate science and to pay attention to the world around them.”

Off-campus research

Other off-campus experiences during SOFIA included field trips to St. Louis by mathematics students, who met with a professional chess player during their analysis of games of skill; to Oregon, Ill., by marching band students to see an open class drum corps competition; and to Chicago by a group of students studying community health, who hope their findings benefit the local community.

A shorter trip was to the east side of Monmouth to search for the remains of Nizie the elephant. Legend holds that the dwarf elephant was presented by the Nizam of Hyderabad to Doris Holt ’31, niece of Monmouth native and world-famous magician William Nicol. Known as “The Great Nicola,” her uncle used the elephant in a disappearing act prior to its death in 1934. Led by Myers, the project exposed the students to many primary historical documents.

On Aug. 25-26, ground-penetrating radar was used on property along North Eleventh Street that that was formerly a pasture owned by a veterinarian who cared for the elephant during its final days. An archaeology technician, assisted by Myers and students, scanned the field, which some accounts say is the burial site of the elephant. Myers said the data is being analyzed at the University of Denver and that it will be several weeks before results are received.

SOFIA’s impact

SOFIA projects have all sorts of practical applications, such as the group of chemistry students who helped digitize the archives of the Midwestern Association of Chemistry Teachers in Liberal Arts Colleges. Their work will be showcased at the association’s 65th annual meeting, which the College will host in October.

Exercise science students examined “Basic Health Measures in College Students,” with one of their goals being to find a better way to measure obesity than body mass index. Their research suggested that waist-to-structure ratio is a “relatively inexpensive and easy way” to classify college students as overweight or obese.

Will Best ’20 of Monmouth and Glorianna Hatt ’21 of Roselle, Ill., worked with Assistant Professor of History Michelle Damian on the question, “What Is Asian Studies?” They, too, took a field trip, traveling to Chicago to visit the Field Museum, the Botanic Garden and Mitsuwa Marketplace.

But their main interest was closer to home. They worked with Damian to develop a proposal to bring an Asian studies minor to the College. That work will continue throughout the semester.

The Asian studies project isn’t the first – nor is it likely to be the last – SOFIA project to have an impact on the larger campus community.

“Many, many faculty colloquia begin with ‘This project started as a SOFIA project,’” said Fasano. “That type of occurrence is a wonderful benefit we really didn’t plan on when we started SOFIA. I think the quality of the projects is even better from when we first started. People have figured out they can do it.”