College summer school pushes students to think like scientists

MIDDLEBURY — A group of Middlebury College students met in a sixth floor Bicentennial Hall classroom one recent morning to plan their hunt for bacteria. Their ultimate goal was to reduce or eliminate the potentially dangerous cyanobacteria that has become a growing pollution problem in Lake Champlain and other bodies of water.
But just as important is that they learn processes and habits of mind that will make them good engineers, mathematicians and scientists.
“It’s a professional model,” said Biology Professor Jeremy Ward, one of the program’s faculty advisers. “This is what professors do when we’re not in the classroom.”
The students, who are part of the college’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Innovation program, are building an autonomous aquatic research vessel to detect cyanobacteria, often incorrectly called blue-green algae. These bacteria, found in parts of Lake Champlain, can be a health risk to humans, dogs and other mammals during the summer months.
When light of a given wavelength is directed at the cyanobacteria, it responds by fluorescing — emitting light of a different wavelength and appearing to glow. The STEM students are taking advantage of this property by equipping a research vessel with light-emitting diode (LED) based lights.
The students have almost completed the first prototype of the vessel, and the recent meeting focused on some final engineering questions before the model, dubbed Prototype 1, was tested the next day.
“The bacteria fluoresce at a certain wavelength — around 650 nanometers — when we put in light at 620 nanometers,” says Chiara Lawrence, a rising junior neuroscience major. “Part of the problem is that those frequencies are really close. We need a filter that makes sure we’re only picking up the bacteria’s fluorescence, without interference from the LEDs.”
The team will either use a fluorometer to directly detect frequencies of fluorescent light coming off the bacteria, or it will use a camera in the vessel to take a picture, which will later be analyzed in terms of brightness by a computer program.
Eventually the conversation turns to the question of the LEDs themselves. Eli Feinberg, a rising junior physics major, draws a diagram of the bank of four lights and the circuit that powers them.
“Do we need a separate resistor for each LED?” one of the students asks. As the team starts to consider the physics involved, Professor Ward raises an interesting question from the back of the room.
“Let’s say LEDs were $1,000 each. Can you guys justify why you chose to use four?”
Ward’s question highlights a unique element of the STEM Innovation program, compared to most classroom experiences. These students aren’t being graded on their ability to provide the correct answers to standard questions. They are instead being evaluated on their ability to identify relevant problems and use interdisciplinary approaches to find effective solutions.
As Professor Ward said, “There’s a more salient evaluation: the boat has to work.”
Professors Frank Swenton (Math), Noah Graham (Physics) and Ward developed the program at the request of college President Ron Liebowitz. The program isn’t affiliated with any particular academic department; instead, it is funded directly through the College President’s Office.
Nationally, STEM fields have been a major focus of the White House’s education agenda, as the United States falls behind other nations in performance in subjects like science and math.
Middlebury’s STEM program is funded in part through a grant from William Hearst III, the parent of a Middlebury College alumna. Hearst believes that college STEM education has become too content-beholden and less innovative, according to Ward. He contacted Liebowitz in search of alternative educational methods.
When Liebowitz approached Swenton, Graham and Ward, he asked them, “Are there other ways to envision science learning?” Ward recalled. Thus the seeds for STEM Innovation program were planted.
This summer marks the second incarnation of the STEM team. The eight participants were chosen from a pool of around 30 applicants from majors in sciences and mathematics. Applicants were asked to describe a significant problem that exists, and to formulate an interdisciplinary solution to the problem.
“When you learn like this, you’re not learning content exclusively, or even primarily,” Ward said.
Instead, students gain experience in methods of problem-solving they may not encounter in class.
“Working on our project students have to identify the right scientific tool for the job, drawing both on what they’ve learned in classes and their ability to learn on their own,” Professor Graham said.
Willie Goodman, a rising junior physics major, agrees.
“One thing that is unique is that we’re not doing research for professors. Instead, we have professors advising our research,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about project management and organizational structure.”
The vessel is GPS-guided and contains several microcomputers. One type, called Arduinos, consists of simple microprocessors used for such tasks as telling LEDs to turn on at certain points. Another microcomputer, the Raspberry Pi, is a credit-card-size machine that can plug into a computer monitor to be programmed.
Though no one on the team is majoring in Computer Science, the team has worked hard to fill gaps in its skill set.
“I taught myself the Arduino language,” Carter Merenstein, a rising junior biology major, said. “I think coding is interesting.”
When it comes to the idea that self-directed students do great things, it seems the proof is in the pi.
It is also significant that the team is equally divided by gender. The Obama administration has stressed its commitment to ensuring that women and minorities have equal opportunities to acquire the skills needed for high-paying, high-reward jobs in STEM fields. The students’ majors are diverse within the sciences, including physics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, and molecular biology and biochemistry.
Ultimately the STEM innovation program has a dual aim. On one hand, it will contribute to mitigation of the cyanobacteria threat in areas like Lake Champlain by providing a prototype detection system. Currently, a volunteer workforce is employed by the Lake Champlain Committee to monitor the algae. The autonomous vessel could drastically reduce the labor required for this task and increase the accuracy of the observations.
On the other hand, the project’s conceptual aim also includes determining whether there is room in the liberal arts curriculum for hands-on, unconventional learning that focuses more on self-direction and method than content. This question is of enormous importance nationally in the face of the fast-paced and changing world of science and technology.
“To be a truly informed citizen today, science and technology has to be a part of your education,” Ward said.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STEM Innovation Program student Willy Goodman works on an autonomous research vessel that will be used to detect cyanobacteria and predict algae blooms in Lake Champlain.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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