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SOFIA students get early start on ‘living and learning’ community

Barry McNamara
Victoria Burgo '21 of Chicago makes a point during the SOFIA poster presentations Aug. 18 in the Center for Science and Business.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Classes are now underway at Monmouth College, but for a group of more than 50 students, serious academic endeavors began three weeks earlier through the College’s Summer Opportunity for Intellectual Activity (SOFIA) program.

Each of 57 students, most of them incoming freshmen, worked on one of 13 different research projects, which spanned 11 academic disciplines. Just concluding its ninth year, the innovative program was coordinated by Monmouth faculty members Chris Fasano, Laura Moore and Christine Myers.

For 90 minutes on each of the three Fridays of the program, the entire group assembled to listen to short presentations about that week’s featured projects. SOFIA officially came to a close during Matriculation Day activities on Aug. 18, when posters were presented for each of the projects.

Myers said the students benefitted from a new aspect to SOFIA this year.

“By housing the SOFIA students in two residence halls, a living and learning community was established for the incoming students,” she said Myers. “There was more opportunity for interaction with SOFIA students working on other projects. I could see increased cohesion in my group, as compared to previous years when the students were scattered over more of campus.”

Some of the projects, such as an exercise science study titled “Physical Assessments in College Students,” continued work started by a previous SOFIA group.

Another, “Measuring Biodiversity in Southeast Asia Using Leeches,” used specimens collected by four other Monmouth students who traveled to the island nation of Sumatra in May with biology professor James Godde.

Lightning and 3-D printer

Two of the SOFIA projects have already been in the news on campus, including the work done under the guidance of Fasano on “Mapping the Strike by Detecting the Radio Frequencies of Cloud-Based Lightning Strikes.” In 2012, Fasano received a $228,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study lightning.

Lightning flashes more than 3 million times a day around the world – roughly 40 times per second – yet not much is known about the phenomenon. Fasano and his students are trying to change that, and the College is home to a World Wide Lightning Location Network station.

In April, art professor Janis Wunderlich had her request for a 3-D ceramic printer granted through a single-day crowdfunding effort, and she and her SOFIA students spent the three weeks calibrating the new device while exploring its capabilities and printing the first ceramic items.

“It’s very new and in the rough stages – it’s a work in process,” the students explained on the second Friday of SOFIA. “Calibration is tricky, and we’re still working on it. There are so many avenues you can go with this printer.”

Research methodology

No matter the discipline, the incoming students began to get a better understanding of its required research methodology and its importance. For students involved with Myers’s project, “Investigating Murder and the Medici,” that meant digging into historical research and understanding the need to differentiate between fact and fiction. It also meant a trip to the College’s cadaver lab.

“Poison was a major preoccupation of the upper class,” explained the students who worked on the project related to the famous Italian family. “Arsenic was virtually undetectable. People used poison or knives because guns weren’t really popular until around 1750 – if you did happen to have a gun, people knew that.”

For students who participated in “Community in Monmouth, Ill.: Challenges and Opportunities,” their research methodology involved surveying as many people as they could to gather meaningful information. Fortunately for the group, two events brought large crowds to downtown Monmouth in August – the annual car show and Bacon Fest.

The group reported that Monmouth’s diversity – 14 different dialects are spoken in the school district – was viewed by the respondents as a strength, while infrastructure such as streets, sidewalks and sewers were viewed as the top challenge in the community.

Both psychology projects – “Sensory and Perceptual Illusions” and “A Better Way of Living: Social Media, Well-Being and Stoicism Among the General Population” – also required volunteer participation.

SOFIA students also looked into ways to improve the College’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program; investigated adding actuarial science as a field of study at Monmouth; and explored the world of wood carving, among other projects.