Barry McNamara  |  Published August 25, 2022

SOFIA Review

Students complete three-week research program prior to fall semester, though some ‘are not done yet.’

IMPRESSIVE FEAT: Michael Andal '26 explains how his group built an 8-bit computer from scratc... IMPRESSIVE FEAT: Michael Andal '26 explains how his group built an 8-bit computer from scratch during this year's SOFIA program.MONMOUTH, Ill. – As the spring semester wound down last April, Monmouth College formally dedicated its Champion Miller Center for Student Equity, Inclusion and Community.

In the three weeks leading up to the fall semester, students dug deeper into the life of 19th-century Monmouth resident Champion Miller – who was born into slavery but purchased his freedom – and Miller’s extended family through the College’s Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activities research program, known as SOFIA.

The project was one of several conducted by the more than four dozen students who participated in SOFIA. Many were first-time freshmen getting a head start on their Monmouth education, while the others were returning students who served as mentors, assisting the respective faculty members who sponsored the projects.

The SOFIA groups presented their research at three Friday colloquia in August, as well as during a two-hour public presentation Aug. 20, held as part of the College’s matriculation activities.

On the day the Champion Miller group made its colloquium presentation at a packed Pattee Auditorium, other groups presented on the genetics of smell and two types of climate: climate change in the natural environment – which required collecting data for several days at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in northern Michigan – and the campus climate for the College’s LGBTQ+ community. One of the areas of focus for the latter group was building safe spaces, and their efforts led to the creation of “The Rainbow Room” in the Center for Science and Business.

Researching Miller and Murphy

More than 20 years ago, Monmouth student Regina Bannan Johnson ’01, now the College’s director of student equity, inclusion and community, wrote a paper about Miller, who moved to Monmouth five years before the Civil War. Details of his life are not in abundance – and no picture of him has yet been found – but there are more recorded details about his brother, Richard Murphy, who was the subject of much of the SOFIA group’s time and efforts.

“In all of Monmouth College’s history, we have never undertaken a task of this magnitude, as it relates to our early Black communities.” Regina Johnson

In addition to their research through College Historian Jeff Rankin, the Warren County Genealogical Society and ancestry.com, the group heard a lecture by Knox College professor Owen Muelder on the history of the Underground Railroad in western Illinois and visited the African American Museum of Iowa.

The museum is located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is also where some of Murphy’s large family settled. The group was especially interested in finding living descendants of Murphy and Miller.

CHAMPION FOR CHANGE: Nyasaina Kwamboka '23 addresses a packed Pattee Auditorium on Aug. 19, d... CHAMPION FOR CHANGE: Nyasaina Kwamboka '23 addresses a packed Pattee Auditorium on Aug. 19, detailing her SOFIA group's research into Champion Miller and the family of his brother, Richard Murphy.“We’re going to contact them in the future and hopefully get a picture of Champion Miller,” said Nyasaina Kwamboka ’23 of Nairobi, Kenya, the group’s student leader and co-student manager of the Champion Miller Center. “We are not done yet.”

“It’s something that has never been told before,” said Dante Sardelli of Woodstock, Illinois, one of the freshman students in the group. “Champion Miller needs to be talked about.”

A student in the audience expressed gratitude for the group’s work.

“These are the stories we don’t hear about in the curriculum, and we need to hear them,” said the student. “Projects like this help raise more advocacy.”

The group, who shared that Levi Marlowe, a contemporary of Miller, was the first Black man to work at the College, also highlighted an inspirational quotation, attributed to Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

Johnson is working with SOFIA coordinators and Monmouth professors Chris Fasano and Laura Moore on the extension of the project as an independent study for the 2022-2023 academic year.

“The Miller research thus far has not only shed light on, but contributed to, a better understanding of why so many formerly enslaved people settled in the areas of Warren and Knox counties,” said Johnson. “In all of Monmouth College’s history, we have never undertaken a task of this magnitude, as it relates to our early Black communities.”

Debunking and debugging

Some of the other subjects covered during the three-week SOFIA program were lightning, politics, community art and wearable technology. One group even demonstrated how to build an 8-bit computer from scratch.

“I’d say the computer is 90% done,” said the project’s faculty sponsor, Robert Utterback. “It ‘runs’ and displays some calculations, but there is one group of wires missing, and one chip doesn’t work. We think it’s because they forgot to ground it for a while – a lesson learned. The project was ambitious for three weeks. I’d say we needed three more days and another chip. At least one student plans to work on it some more this semester.”

“They learned that computers are not magic. … By building their own simple computer – roughly similar to some from the 1970s – the students got to peek under the hood and realize that computers make sense.” Robert Utterback

Utterback said the project provided valuable lessons in a relatively short amount of time.

“They learned that computers are not magic,” he said. “Computers are often seen as ‘black boxes’ that do magic things, and learning about them can be overwhelming. There are a lot of different components, but each individual component is not that complicated. By building their own simple computer – roughly similar to some from the 1970s – the students got to peek under the hood and realize that computers make sense.”

The time-consuming portion of the project, said Utterback, was “debugging.”

“Actually wiring up the computer doesn’t take that long, in the same way that writing code doesn’t actually take long,” he said. “Inevitably, however, something got hooked up wrong, or we needed to make some small tweaks. Those problems ripple through the system and can be very hard to find, taking hours or sometimes days to find. You have to treat it like a puzzle to be solved and learn to enjoy the process.”

“I found it surprising how much time was spent just finding problems,” said Hazel Gablin ’26 of Oswego, Illinois, a psychology major who might add computer science as a second major. “I was under the impression that most of the time would be spent building it, but a minimum of two-thirds of the time was just trying to figure out where we had gone wrong.”

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