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Monmouth's SOFIA students are already hitting the books

Barry McNamara
08/13/2012
MC students Rick Williams, Brad Segura and Megan Lyle are studying why things fly with Howard Dwyer, professor of mathematics and computer science.
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The mantra of several Monmouth College students who have returned to campus early for SOFIA (Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activities) is “What goes up, must come down.” Others are working daily with a couple types of critters – Madagascar hissing cockroaches and “blood-sucking” leeches – that would probably make most of their peers extremely squeamish.
 
“We’re breaking a lot of things,” said professor of mathematics and computer science Howard Dwyer of his SOFIA group, which is studying why things fly.
 
So far, the group has experimented with paper airplanes, handmade kites and fragile balsa gliders. Crashes have been par for the course, but the kites stayed aloft on a windless day thanks to a dome of air over the softball field, and a handmade hot air balloon also defied gravity for an extended period.
 
“We’re building things, we’re having fun,” said Dwyer, who noted that his students will work their way up to boomerangs, roto-powered crafts and, ultimately, a radio-controlled plane during the three-week SOFIA session.
 
For two physics groups, it will actually be a good thing when their project comes down to earth. They will be launching a weather balloon, which they expect to rise nearly 100,000 feet (almost 19 miles) before the balloon pops and their data collection device descends with a parachute. The balloon should stay airborne for 3-4 hours and may drift up to 70 miles.
 
“We think it may come down somewhere near Canton,” said assistant professor of physics Tim Stiles. “We’ll retrieve it using a GPS/SPOT system.”
 
His physics colleague, Chris Fasano, added, “We’re the payload on the balloon,” referring to lightning-related research being done by three students, including two – Emily Bell and Nick Olson – who were part of the college’s first class of Midwest Scholars a year ago.
 
“We were all set up to do this research last summer,” said Bell, “ except for one thing – it doesn’t storm here anymore.”
 
“That’s right,” quipped Fasano. “You can blame the drought on our lightning research.”
 
Two other groups are performing research related to cockroaches and leeches. For the cockroaches, what the students are putting into them is important, as they are trying to determine the effects of anti-microbial medications on growth, as well as the effects on the insects’ parasites.
 
For the leeches, it’s important what’s being taken out – specifically, the DNA that is present in the 109 leeches that were collected while biology professor James Godde and three students spent five days this summer in the Malaysian jungle. The DNA that the leeches ingested will be analyzed to determine the mammal diversity in the jungle.

“Our students are hoping for muntjacs, which are barking deer,” said Godde. “We’d also be very excited if we got tiger DNA.”

How do Monmouth students feel about their SOFIA experience? Another group, led by professor of mathematics and computer science Marjorie Bond, is devoting its time to find out. The students, who are studying experimental design and survey design, will take part in several projects, including a survey of the 62 students and 17 faculty involved in SOFIA.
 
The aforementioned groups made brief presentations of their research at a colloquium on Aug. 10. The remaining 11 groups will discuss their topics the next two Fridays, and all of the groups will display their research on Aug. 25 in conjunction with matriculation activities.