Student Researchers Disprove Fallacies, Produce Conference-worthy Results
By Diane Bosser
For those who thought first- and second-year students don’t do undergraduate research, think again. Evidence of research feasibility, student competencies, and faculty interest exists across the College in almost every discipline. From labs to libraries, desktops to dirt lots, MC students prove the skeptics wrong by producing irrefutable evidence of their abilities and ambitions.
Last year students submitted a record number of papers (42) to the 2013 Beacon Conference, the community college com-petition of academic achievement. Over the summer, eight faculty mentors accompanied 25 students to the conference; 21 students presented papers and four presented posters. The results: Montgomery College won 10 of the 18 categories.
“My philosophy is that if students have this [research] experience in the first and second year, they will graduate,” says Dr. Eun-Woo Chang, instructional dean of science, engineering, and mathematics. “The relationships they experience with faculty mentors and advisers help them become successful as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors and, later, in the workplace.”
Since Chang arrived in 2011, coinciding with the opening of the new Science Center at the Rockville Campus, he has vigorously promoted new undergraduate research initiatives. The business and research communities have responded positively with funding to support these initiatives.
In 2012, the National Science Foundation awarded two large grants: a $1.8 million, five-year Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) grant and a $300,000, two-year Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program grant. The STEP grant was the second largest grant in College history. The National Institutes of Health (Bethesda), National Institute of Standards and Technology (Gaithersburg), Naval Surface Warfare Center-Carderock (Bethesda), and the J. Craig Venter Institute (Rockville) have also helped more students do summer research through internships and stipend funding.
The benefits to students include opportunities to explore material not covered in class; additional credentials for resumes; better letters of recommendation from faculty mentors; and experience that often helps define future education or career paths.
Not limited to scientific research, humanities students have significant opportunities to work outside the classroom. Research is now a mandatory component of all honors programs.
“We try to open up as many options as we can,” says Professor Sara Ducey, director of the College’s Paul Peck Humanities Institute. “[Research] adds pressure—in a good way. You can see the students blossom.”
In the new “completion agenda” age, undergraduate research will continue to play a supporting role in College efforts to meet new state and federal mandates. The Council on Undergraduate Research, a nonprofit organization that promotes undergraduate research benefits, asserts that research increases student retention and promotes an innovation-oriented culture.
» Professor Aubrey Smith and Principles of Biology student and life sciences major Amanda Caruso coauthored and published their biocomputational model of one PEPCK (enzyme) in the journal article, “In Silico Characterization and Homology Modeling of Cyanobacterial Phosphoenoloypyruvate Carboxykinase Enzyme.” Smith says: “Amanda was the reason why I finally decided to start working on the project. Her contribution was vital, and she did good work.”
» After months of weekly meetings with engineering professor, Dr. Lan Xiang, students Armand Nokbak-Nyemebe and Taqiyya Safi designed and produced a smart, low-cost electronic home control unit. The system allows homeowners to better manage energy resources and protect against intruders through a single device. They presented the unit at research and engineering conferences last season. “I had always liked engineering,” says Nokbak, “but thanks to Dr. Xiang, now I love it 10 times more.”
» After an in-class overview of viral diseases and epidemics, Understanding Viruses (BI 104) students complete the final project: a conversation/interview with an HIV/AIDS patient. “The project reinforces the usual theoretical content,” says instructor, Dr. Muswamba Kadima-Nzuji, “resulting in increased awareness of the issue; respect for infected citizens; and civic duty in educating grass roots on viral emerging diseases as well as HIV/AIDS. At the end of the project, students come out more mature about the world around them and their own position within this world.”
» TV/Radio students in their final semester collaborate to produce a video program highlighting the year’s successes. “MC in Focus: Commencement Edition” airs on Channel 10 and is played in the commencement tent before the ceremony to early bird seat savers. Professor Joanne Carl of the Communication Arts Technologies Department has led the effort for 10 years, supported by the Montgomery College Television (MCTV) staff. During that time, the equipment has changed from analog to digital, from tape to tapeless, and the students show no fear ... and no fatigue as they contribute more than 100 collective hours to the time-sensitive project. “It’s a great trial run for students about to embark on a career in TV production,” says Carl.
» Summer students in archaeology courses,Archaeological Investigations (AN 202) and Field Archaeology in Montgomery County (HP 260) tote whisk brooms, sifters, trowels, and handpicks, to sites hoping to unearth tangible connections to the people who came before us. In June 2012, students excavated at the Zeigler Log House in Clarksburg, Md. In their seasonal report, students linked findings—buttons, cloth remnants, children’s shoes, crystals, and small sundries from the early and mid-19th century—to county data (i.e., land-use records, maps, and historical customs). Ongoing research is supported by Anthropology Rookie Research Scholarships, established with a $100,000 grant from retired anthropology professor, Dr. Mary Gallagher, and husband, Dr. Len Gallagher.
» Greg Malveaux, coordinator for the College’s Study Abroad Program, and Joanne M. Frazier, associate professor of business administration, led 20 students to Germany, Luxembourg, and Brussels last summer. Along with touring carmakers BMW and Audi, the European Union parliament, and sampling German chocolate, the group worked at the Youth Farm for handicapped children in Stuttgart. They built a half-acre horse track to assist youth with hippotherapy, a therapy in which horse riding aids children with disabilities with walking, general balance, and concentration. The group was featured in a German newspaper. Seven students completed formal projects and blogged about their experiences on the College website.
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In Her Element
When her friends were getting out to the movies, the beach, and the mall last summer, Ngan Le ’13 was exploring more physic-ally challenging activities: reading scientific journals, reviewing Newton’s Second Law, making predictions, working and reworking calculations, and analyzing her data. After Dr. Eugene Li introduced her to the physics of falling objects in his introductory physics Learning Community course, Ngan pursued her own research into the “raindrop problem.”
“She would take her programming and math knowledge to go beyond what I asked her to try,” says Li of his student’s persistence and creativity. “It was like [working in] a PhD research group atmosphere.”
The petite, bioengineering major produced a presentation,“A Mathematical Model of a Falling Raindrop in a Non-Uniform Gravitational Field,” and was invited to present at the Joint Mathematics Meetings 2013 in San Diego. She was the only student from a two-year institution invited to present.
She also presented at the annual Beacon Conference in Bethlehem, Penn., where she won first place in the math/computer category. She completed her summer tour with a poster presentation at the AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) conference in Portland, Oregon.
Based upon her strong academic skills, Ngan was named a Presidential Scholar at the College and received multiple offers from transfer institutions; she is pursuing a biomedical engineering degree at Texas A&M University this fall, and plans to pursue a PhD.