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Writing among disciplines featured at SOFIA

Barry McNamara
Monmouth College SOFIA students put on a happy face during a children's music performance at the Warren County Library earlier this month.
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Writing among disciplines featured during second round of SOFIA presentations

Writing took center stage in the second round of presentations on this month’s SOFIA (Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activities) projects at Monmouth College.
Assistant professor of history Fred Witzig and Kayla Westfall, a sophomore from Galesburg, have found their project to be so interesting that Witzig quipped, “Actually, what we want to do is cancel all of our classes and just do this all semester.”
Titled “Diary of a Prairie Missionary,” Witzig and Westfall’s project involves studying the 1835 diary of the Rev. Alexander Blaikie, a Presbyterian missionary. Blaikie left Cincinnati, Ohio, that year and headed west to several points in Illinois, including some very near Monmouth, where he helped organize the South Henderson United Presbyterian Church. Part of the diary is written as though it were a report back to his church, but Blaikie also interjected his personal views on issues related to the Presbyterian church at the time and also on one of the nation’s biggest issues of that era – slavery.
Blaikie eventually settled in Boston and was a key figure there, founding a church. He sent one of his sons to nearby Harvard, but another, Thomas, attended Monmouth in 1863.
“What was that all about?” wondered Witzig. “What was his connection to Monmouth? Perhaps, since he spent time in Ohio, he knew the Wallaces (and MC’s first president, David Wallace).”
Westfall will likely write a paper on the subject, and when she does, help will be available from MC’s Writing Center. Students involved in that campus service also made a SOFIA presentation, detailing their work in creating a new website for the center and in putting together some new resources, such as an APA citation guide, which will be available in hard copy and on the new site.
The students have increased the Writing Center’s presence on Facebook, developed instructional videos and collaborated with faculty to better instruct students who need help with papers related to science. They also took time out for a little summer fun, creating a writing parody video to the tune of the hit song “Call Me Maybe.”
“That was completely self-inspired,” said assistant professor Bridget Draxler, who directs the Writing Center and is overseeing the SOFIA project.
Writing and music is the topic of another SOFIA project, led by faculty members Marlo Belschner and Craig Vivian. Specifically, eight students are writing and recording children’s music.
The project’s origins can be dated back to Vivian’s recent sabbatical, when he spent a semester observing a kindergarten class. The educational studies professor saw a need for more “constructive and informative” songs, and that’s what the SOFIA students are trying to create.
“We are using simple, non-complex subjects, with lyrics that get the students involved,” explained Allyson Frazier, a senior from Schaumburg.
The students have put on two local performances, with another planned for Aug. 23. In between their first two sessions, they received instruction from assistant professor music Tim Pahel, and they noticed a considerable improvement in their performance.
“Our goal is to produce a free, interactive CD of children’s music,” said Frazier, who was listed as one of the writers of the song “Seasons,” which the group performed for the SOFIA audience. The catchy tune guided listeners through winter, spring, summer and fall and back to winter again, through the point of view of a snowman.
Speaking of cold, a group of physics students has been working with really chilly temperatures in its project, which is being directed by assistant professor Ashwani Kumar. To reach the minus 288.67 degrees Fahrenheit reading required for part of their research, Kumar and the students took a field trip to Purdue University.
While some researchers focus on physical reactions to extreme cold, Kumar and his students are interested in the electrical and magnetic properties, specifically related to superconductivity. Through what is called the Meissner Effect, objects can actually “float” in such conditions.
“It looks like a magic trick,” said one of the students, Cyrus Turner, a junior from Reynolds.
Applications of that effect include a train that actually hovers slightly above the tracks, allowing it to move much more rapidly due to a lack of friction.
A YouTube video of that “magic trick” is a fun watch, and so are the videos created by associated professor of mathematics and computer science Michael Sostarecz and his students using high-speed imagery.
The students have photographed a variety of images, from the popping of a kernel of popcorn, slowed to 2,000 frames per second, to a human backflip, captured at 300 frames per second.
Using a variety of applications of calculus, the students have spent much of their time analyzing the data from images of the release of a water bottle rocket, slowed to 2,500 frames per second. Still on the students’ to-do list is building a “tornado machine” and capturing images from inside it.
The other group to make its presentation at the second SOFIA colloquium is studying the effects of dichlorophenoxyacetic acid – a common herbicide – on laboratory rats.
“Most tests involving this herbicide – 2, 4-D – focus on the physical health of the rats,” explained associate professor of psychology Marsha Dopheide. “We are focusing on the mental health.”
Specifically, Dopheide and her students are testing the rats’ anxiety levels. Their hypothesis is that the herbicide reduces their anxiety. That might sound like a good thing, but that reduction in anxiety actually translates to more reckless behavior, which could have dire consequences if that effect is also observed in humans.
All 17 SOFIA projects will be displayed on Aug. 25 at 1 p.m. on the Huff Athletic Center concourse. In the event of hot weather, the displays will be moved to the Haldeman-Thiessen Science Center.