Science and Society

By Will Henriques

This summer I had the opportunity to be part of an interdisciplinary research team trying to build an automated biosensor to detect aromatic hydrocarbons in the water supply. As a rising sophomore, I had never done research before, and had only just declared myself a molecular biology and biochemistry  (MBBC) major. I wasn’t at a large research institution or in some industrial laboratory. I spent my summer at Middlebury College, in McCardell Bicentennial Hall, working on the project full time with seven other students. We were a group of MBBC and Physics majors, rising sophomores to recent graduates,  and we worked on the conception and design of our automated biosensor from the end of January through the middle of August.

The program I participated in is very much in its infancy; to my knowledge, it is the first time anything of the sort has ever been tried at Middlebury. We had no catchy name; we were called the “STEM Pilot Project,” or the “STEM Innovation Project 2013” or often just “the STEM Team.” To clarify, STEM is the acronym used to refer to all science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines.

The program emerged from a generous gift from Margaret and William D. Hearst, who have long supported STEM-related projects and ideas. The goal? To attempt to solve some STEM-related problem through an interdisciplinary approach.

Last year’s STEM team applied in mid-October to be part of the program by submitting an idea, a solution to some problem. Three faculty mentors, Associate Professor of Physics Noah Graham, Professor of Mathematics Frank Swenton, and the Albert D. Mead Professor of Biology Jeremy Ward selected the applicants based on the quality of our proposed idea.

Those ideas were then used during a J-term course as “seed ideas.” The group spent most of J-term brainstorming, developing and defending ideas for potential projects over the summer, and by the end of J-term, we had decided on a single idea. We wanted to genetically engineer bacteria to fluoresce in the presence of aromatic hydrocarbons (byproducts of petroleum production and consumption) and then build a device that could be used to monitor fluorescence levels in the bacteria in real time. We envisioned the device being used by homeowners concerned about water contamination from hydraulic fracturing or in water-quality monitoring projects.

Through the spring semester, we continued to develop our project and conduct background research, meeting twice a month to update each other on progress. In mid-June, we arrived back on campus for eight weeks of intense work on the project.

Did we succeed in creating a final product? No. Did we have something to show for our work? Yes. By the end of the summer, we had developed a bacterial line that we believe is close to being able to fluoresce in the presence of aromatic hydrocarbons, and we had built a prototype device that was capable of detecting fluorescence in bacterial cultures. But we did not publish a paper, nor did we contribute to faculty research, nor did we develop a marketable product.

What then was the purpose of the STEM Program? How is it relevant? How does it fit into the picture of a Middlebury liberal arts education?

For the record, the goal of the program was never to get published or develop a marketable product. The goal was far broader than that. Graham elucidated the goal of the STEM Program in a recent email. The goal, he wrote, is “to complement the traditional curriculum, by both giving an opportunity for students to apply the in-depth knowledge they’ve gained through their majors in an interdisciplinary way.”

Ward was keen to highlight that the STEM program is not a replacement by any means of the traditional classroom learning that goes on at the College.
“Lecture has a lot of rote learning, but that’s not a bad thing,” he wrote in an email. “You need to build rote recall of topics … [to] synthesize them into higher order concepts.”

Though we live in the Information Age, where all knowledge is never further than a wireless connection and a few finger-taps away, Ward noted that, “if you have to go to Wikipedia to look up how [DNA] replication works every time you need to know, you will never be able to innovate using a PCR [protocol].”

“All of the information and conceptual understanding gained in courses serve as intellectual ‘raw material’,” Swenton added in an email, “ready to be put into action. Learning with breadth as well as depth is what helps one to see as many angles as possible when confronted with a specific problem to solve. I see a project like [the STEM Program] as serving as a catalyst – but a catalyst needs raw materials to help the reaction happen, and that’s what one’s coursework provides.”

But what is STEM a catalyst for? According to Graham, the STEM experience should give students a new perspective on their education, and “[they should] be able to return to courses in (and outside of) their majors with a stronger sense of how what they are learning can be applied to solve technological problems.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 30, Dean of Faculty and Philip Battell/Sarah Stewart Professor of Biology Andrea Lloyd discussed the relevance of a Middlebury education in her lecture “The Evolution of the Liberal Arts at Middlebury College.” (the full lecture can be found online through MiddMedia). She defined a relevant education as one that, among other things, equips students to “solve the complex, multi-dimensional problems confronting the world.”

I want to re-examine my earlier questions through the lens of educational relevance.  In many ways, the STEM program epitomizes Lloyd’s definition of relevance. It is an opportunity for students to try their hand at solving the “complex, multi-dimensional problems confronting the world,” and then return to the classroom with a greater understanding of how their coursework contributes to their ability to solve real-world problems.

The STEM program should act, in the words of Frank Swenton, as a catalyst. It feeds the fire of passion, stimulates a hunger for broader and deeper understanding.
Did it achieve this end? Spencer Egan ’15.5, a Physics major on the project, wrote in an email, “it is rare to have an assignment with as little structure from professors as the STEM project.  The program required problem solving on a wide rage of scales … and demanded a high level of … critical thinking every day. While frustrating at times, working as independently as we did was the most rewarding part of the job.”

Will it continue to achieve this end? The next generation of STEMites was selected last week; only time will tell.