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Monmouth's SOFIA students get head start on academic rigor of college

Barry McNamara
08/23/2016
The Monmouth College SOFIA group that spent 10 days “roughing it” earlier this month on a five-state, 2,000-mile trek around Lake Superior, is pictured near the Wisconsin/Minnesota border, overlooking Black River.
Today marks the first official start of Monmouth College’s 2016-17 academic year, but a group of students has already been hard at work throughout August. They conducted research as part of the College’s three-week Summer Opportunity for Intellectual Activity (SOFIA) program.

A total of 74 students, including 49 freshmen and transfers, participated in one of 17 projects. Each project was led by a faculty member from one of the 12 academic disciplines represented. Projects included writing the history of Harry Potter, mathematical modeling with high-speed imagery, using 3-D modeling equipment to construct a diorama of early Monmouth College, and the “Physics of Fun,” which examined rollercoaster rides at a regional amusement park.

The students presented their research last weekend as part of Matriculation Day activities at the College.

“SOFIA is an invaluable way to introduce incoming students to the academic life of the College, in a purely enjoyable way,” said Assistant Professor of History Christine Myers, one of SOFIA’s co-directors. “The lack of exam stress or grading is also beneficial for the faculty because we can have a relaxed period of time to explore a topic we might not normally get the chance to research. And for the returning student mentors, SOFIA is an opportunity to be academic and social leaders as they help the new students get acclimated to Monmouth College.”

Following Lightning

One of the other directors, physics professor Chris Fasano, was in charge of “Mapping Lightning,” an ongoing Monmouth research project that has received funding from the National Science Foundation.

“We’re the only people who are doing this type of research, with an array of ground-based detectors,” he said. “We’re the only people – anyplace – who have this data. This work takes patience and time. It’s the perfect project for an undergraduate program. We can watch the sky for, say, eight years, while students in graduate school wouldn’t have that type of time.”

The History of Harry Potter

Working with Myers, another group of students pieced together an element of the fictional history of Harry Potter, using only primary and secondary source materials embedded in J.K. Rowlings’ novels and the marginalia written by Harry in his textbooks. Working with such sources is one of the main elements of the College’s innovative history curriculum.

The students quickly learned that writing the overall history was too broad a task, so they narrowed their focus to the rise and fall of Lord Voldemort, creating a work from the perspective of historians writing on May 2, 2098, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts.

Last fall, Myers taught a section of the College’s Reflections course on Harry Potter, which was created by faculty member Anne Mamary. She said that one of the debates in her class was about what the people in the Wizarding world thought of Harry Potter, given the limited amount of information they had on the events taking place, much of which was slanted or tainted in some way.

“As an historian, I thought it would be a fun intellectual challenge to figure out what sources existed within the ‘Potterverse’ and what kind of history would result from using only those documented artifacts and records,” Myers said. “The project went tremendously well because we were all able to start on the same page (literally) and debate content instantly. Plus, we all share a love of Harry Potter that is evident in the history the students produced.”

View the final project.

The ‘Physics of Fun’

Students who tackled the “Physics of Fun” with Associate Professor of Physics Tim Stiles sought to answer such questions as how many g’s (units of g-force) a rollercoaster loop-the-loop exerts on a person and how fast a person goes on a water slide.

They built sensors that fit into specially designed vests in advance of an Aug. 10 trip to Six Flags in St. Louis.

“If a ride exceeds 5 or 6 g’s, our body can’t take it,” explained Elizabeth Reasoner ’20 of Indianapolis, Ind., during one of the three weekly SOFIA presentations in the Center for Science and Business.

“Some of the very first rides in 1900 and 1910 were 6-7 g’s,” added Stiles, who said the data recorded will be used to create real-world examples of forces and energy for introductory physics courses.

After their trip, the students made modifications to the sensors. They plan to take another trip to the park to collect additional data.

Rebuilding Old Main

Two freshmen helped Morgan Holle ’17 of Oskaloosa, Iowa, continue her work modeling Old Main, the central academic building of the College’s early years, which was destroyed by fire on Nov. 14, 1907, due to a defective chimney. The students, who worked under the guidance of theatre professor Doug Rankin, traveled to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture, where Monmouth graduate Matt Mabee ’03 provided access to a special gypsum 3-D printer to assist the project.

The Superior group

SOFIA receives funding from the College, but additional support enabled a group to take a 10-day, 2,000-mile, five-state trip along Lake Superior. Thanks to a gift from 1969 Monmouth graduate Chuck King, which was matched 2-to-1 by his company, Vulcan Materials, the group studied of some of the oldest rock formations in North America. While getting plenty of experience with geology, the students also conducted biology research, collecting mosquitoes and then handling the samples to test for the presence of wolf DNA.

“It was something we wouldn’t have been able to do without the additional help,” said biology professor James Godde, who led the trip along with biology laboratory manager Kathy Mainz.

Other SOFIA highlights

  • An analysis of the state’s budget crisis, including how it affects the City of Monmouth and state schools such as Western Illinois University. Asked what can be done to help Illinois turn things around, Michelle Ravel ’17 of Monmouth replied, “It’s important as students to make sure to vote to put people in office who will get the job done.”
  • Interviews with local veterans as part of the “Echoes of the World War II” history group. The oral histories, which include an interview with Warren County Sheriff Martin Edwards, can be found at Echoes of World War II.
  • Ongoing biology research with Madagascar hissing cockroaches, looking at the effects of parasites on their hosts.
  • Using a piezoelectric force sensor to study the timing and dynamic consistency of a drummer’s strokes.
  • Introducing psychology students to working with rats through a study of potential neurotoxicant effects of brominated flame retardants.
  • Studying forensics past and present to give members of Monmouth’s ScotSpeak team a more comprehensive understanding of public address and performance.
Other disciplines represented at this year’s SOFIA were art, economics and exercise science, whose students conducted surveys of the Fighting Scots football team to determine their physiological and psychological response to training camp.

View the Facebook photo album of SOFIA.