Barry McNamara  |  Published August 22, 2023

A Head Start on College

Aug. 23 is officially the first day of classes at Monmouth, but the College’s innovative three-week SOFIA program gave several students a sneak preview of higher education.

LOOKING FOR ET: SOFIA students Gianna Maughan (left) and Jesia Choity focused their work in astro... LOOKING FOR ET: SOFIA students Gianna Maughan (left) and Jesia Choity focused their work in astronomy on exoplanets, which are planets beyond the solar system.MONMOUTH, Ill. – Re-creating ketchup of the ancient world and learning how to write more creatively were just two of the results from Monmouth College’s innovative Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activities program, which concluded Aug. 19 with poster presentations in the Center for Science and Business.

Also known as SOFIA, the program ran for three weeks, with the 11 student groups each making one 20-minute presentation over the course of three consecutive Fridays, leading up to their poster presentations.


Ancient technologies and creating inspiration

On the first Friday, students led by classics professor Bob Simmons explained how and why they were attempting to recreate technologies used in ancient Greece and Rome. As is often the case when studying classics, their research was interdisciplinary, especially overlapping with chemistry. For example, they learned what made Roman concrete so strong that many of the structures from 2,000 years ago still stand today. And the students not only made papyrus, but the ink that was used to write on it.

PASS THE KETCHUP: Logan Serpette discusses what went into making garum, the ancient world's e... PASS THE KETCHUP: Logan Serpette discusses what went into making garum, the ancient world's equivalent to a common modern condiment. Also pictured is William Woeltje.Chemistry also came into play when the students ventured into the kitchen, baking flatbread without yeast. They also attempted several times to create garum, which Logan Serpette ’27 of Henry, Illinois, said is a sauce made of “fermented fish. This is pretty much ketchup for them. They put it on everything.”

“I’m not confident we’ve mastered it enough not to make people ill,” said Simmons of the dicey concoction.

Students led by English professor David Wright shared what they’d learned by participating in his three-week mini-course, titled “The Generative Muse.” The group experienced various ways to be inspired to write, with their inspiration coming from such sources as random lines from unrelated books, photos and postcards found in an antique shop, the Monmouth Cemetery, and works of art in a museum. They also kayaked on Lake Storey and walked quietly in the College’s Dahl Labyrinth to come up with ideas for their poetry and prose.

“I don’t know whose child that is, but she is now my protagonist,” said Mikaela Avery ’27 of Mackinaw, Illinois, of a vintage postcard she used to begin creating a story.

“We’re learning how to create inspiration from inspiration that’s already out there,” said Emma Heiser ’27 of Marseilles, Illinois. “We’re developing practices that we can sustain over time.”


Happy with the Constitution? Happy overall?

While the Declaration of Independence recognizes the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the Constitution explicitly protects life and liberty, happiness goes unmentioned in the highest law of the land. That contrast was part of the attraction for students led by political science professor Andre Audette, who researched “How do different constitutions affect our welfare and happiness?”

“We’re learning how to create inspiration from inspiration that’s already out there. We’re developing practices that we can sustain over time.” Emma Heiser


“We read a ton of constitutions,” said Brady Arrenius ’26 of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who said some of the factors that influence happiness are money, health, employment, social connections and religion.

The students also shared their views on the U.S. Constitution. Arrenius said he would keep the preamble but rework the Constitution for a parliamentary style of government. Payton Crims ’27 of Alsip, Illinois, said a change he’d make would be having only six of the Supreme Court justices being appointed by the president, with the other three named by other governing bodies.

Victoria Ayala ’27 of Chicago said changing the Constitution is simply a good idea.

“It was written in the 1700s,” she said. “It’s not modern.”

A group looking into prioritizing mental health on college campuses not only called attention to the issue but proposed some initiatives, including putting relevant mental health information on the back of students’ College ID cards, which are currently blank. The info would include contact numbers for a crisis lifeline and the College’s Office of Campus Safety and Security, as well as a QR code with similar information. The group also proposed an increase in the training that staff members and student leaders involved in residence life receive.

The group’s goal is to make mental health issues “less stigmatized,” to share best practices for dealing with such issues, and to create more awareness of mental health. Some of the reasons that students don’t seek the help they need, said the group, include not realizing how severe their issue is, not believing in the benefits of counseling, and a fear of being judged or discriminated against. The group’s research showed that the latter fear is especially an issue for members of the LGBTQ+ community.


Exoplanets, lichens and more

A group led by well-traveled biology professor James Godde studied lichen biodiversity in the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan’s Wilderness State Park. Lichens – which grow on the bark of trees, on rocks and on the ground – are a life form that is a symbiotic partnership of two separate organisms, a fungus and an alga.

FOLLOWING ALONG: From left, Payton Crims, Brady Arrenius and Carina Engst were paying close atten... FOLLOWING ALONG: From left, Payton Crims, Brady Arrenius and Carina Engst were paying close attention during the first Friday of the SOFIA presentations.On the same day Godde’s group made its presentation, students led by psychology professor Ryan Colclasure detailed how they used virtual reality as a way to test people’s biological responses to both calming and physical experiences.

Jesia Choity ’27 of Bangladesh and Gianna Maughan ’25 of Oak Lawn, Illinois, searched the night sky for exoplanets, which are planets outside the solar system. The exoplanet that attracted their primary attention was one located 63.4 light years from Earth. While working with the College’s telescope, the students also observed such astronomical bodies as the Andromeda Galaxy, the Perseid meteor shower and Saturn.

Three students with an interest in computer science constructed a “retro computer.” Minutes before their presentation on the last day of SOFIA, they were able to play a game of Pong on their computer’s small display screen. During the three-week initiative, they learned how a computer works and, through their introduction to assembly language, how to program one on a basic level.

Students supervised by Laura Moore continued research that the chemistry professor has supervised on sourdough bread, including a comprehensive examination of the subject by Lina Jursa ’24 during this year’s Doc Kieft Summer Research Program on campus.

Another group Investigated metabolic and fitness testing, using a metabolic cart with EKG that was a recent gift to the College from Board of Trustees Vice Chair Ralph Velazquez Jr. ’79 and his wife, Jane Schneiter Velazquez ’81.

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