STEM Innovation Program Inspires

By Elizabeth Zhou

What happens when you get a group of Middlebury students together and tell them to solve an important real-world problem using science? For some, this might seem like an overly daunting, if not impossible, task. But for the seven students taking part in the STEM Innovation Program this J-term, the opportunity for hands-on experience addressing relevant, everyday issues is an exciting prospect. Now entering its fourth year, the STEM Innovation Program was founded by Professor of Mathematics Frank Swenton, Professor of Biology Jeremy Ward and Professor of Physics Noah Graham. This year, the team of students includes Shougat Barua ’19, Annie Cowan ’18, Bennet Doherty ’18, Jen Johnson ’18, Aayam Poudel ’18, Robert Pritchard ’19 and Jonah Simon ’18.

The purpose of the STEM Innovation Program is to complement the traditional curriculum. As students draw knowledge from their classes to implement a solution to a scientific or technological problem, the expectation is that this hands-on experience will enrich the relevance of the information presented in classes.

The seven students meet from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday during J-term. Over these intensive four weeks, their task is to identify a problem and design a prototype that addresses it. Graham, Swenton and Ward show up at 10 a.m. each morning for a 30-minute meeting with the group, during which they answer questions and offer feedback on their work. Near the end of J-term, as students transform their collaborative research into a prototype, professors are often called on to facilitate improvisational lab sessions. Professor Graham describes his role as an “advisor in the morning and lab assistant in the afternoon.”

For the most part, the students have a great deal of autonomy, as they set their own deadlines and decide which tasks are necessary to complete. Graham noted that this is no easy feat, as it is often “demanding on students to be the whole process – to make the assignment and then do the assignment.”

The flexibility of their day-to-day schedule lends itself a high degree of self-directed research, collaboration and experimentation. This summer, the group will reconvene for a ten-week research stint on campus to bring the prototype to life. The intensive planning that occurs during J-term will allow them to hit the ground running in June.

Each year’s STEM Innovation Project is shaped by the unique interests and skill sets of the students involved. In 2013, the final product was an automated BTEX biosensor that detects aromatic hydrocarbons – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX) – in water. In targeting these hazardous organic molecules, students used their biology and physics backgrounds to induce expression of green fluorescent protein (GFP) in the presence of BTEX compounds.
The following year, students created an aquatic surface drone boat and cyanobacteria detection system. The research vessel was put to use in nearby Lake Champlain, where harmful cyanobacteria bloom in the summer. Using remote sensing and robotics, the students programmed the boat with a GPS to retrieve samples from certain parts of the lake. It was an interdisciplinary approach that allowed for the construction of this device: a biology major coded much of the software for the boat, demonstrating the potential of the STEM Innovation Program to foster the secondary interests of its participants.

Finally, last summer’s team sought to design an early warning system of hoof disease in cattle. Traditionally, hoof trimmers use pickup trucks to lift the cow so that the hoof is easily visible; from this point, a physical examination for potential digital dermatitis is simple. However, the students wanted to create a means of detecting the disease earlier. Their efforts culminated in an infrared thermography camera that alerts a farmer of increased blood flow, and thus elevated temperature, in the cow’s hoof – a marker of a foot ailment. Students visited farms in the area and experimented with various forms of basic software to build the hand-held sensor.

In designing the STEM Innovation Program, Graham, Swenton and Ward sought to grant students a breadth and depth of exploration that the standard science curriculum does not.

“The way we go about science in the traditional classroom is a necessary efficiency, Graham stated. “We present a much more linear progression; everything is in a logical structure. Fits and starts are more representative of how science actually proceeds, but it doesn’t fit into a regular semester. Physics has taken four hundred years to get to where it is today; college students only have four. It would be great to follow that meandering path all the time, but it’s not possible.”

When the faculty began assembling their STEM team back in October, they worked to recruit a group with a diverse range of talents, so as to allow for maximum interdisciplinary collaboration.
Annie Cowan ’18, a pre-med sophomore majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry, reflected on her role in the group as they work to figure out their goals and intersecting interests.

“The first week has been almost completely straight talking,” she said. We’re still trying to come up with our big idea. It’s been a lot of sitting around and debating. I try my best to bring people together and make compromises.”

Funding for the program comes from a donor who expressed interest in supporting STEM at the College. This money has helped the team accumulate a basic toolkit of electronics to work with. The copious resources available in McCardell Bicentennial Hall have proved to be a valuable asset as well. Once, students discovered a bacteria-freezing machine that had clearly gone unused for years while hidden away in a closet. In a show of innovation, they pieced it back together, bought replacement parts and put it to great use.

It is this type of spontaneous, creative experimentation that brings such value to the STEM Innovation Program. By venturing boldly into the unknown, students gain experience with problem-solving that can be applied in traditional research labs later on.

“It’s made me think more about real life issues and how I can solve them using science,” computer science major Poudel ’18 said.

Ultimately, the aim of the project is not publication in a journal, but rather the production of something “deliverable.” Guided by a spirit of continuous discovery and interdisciplinary collaboration, the lucky seven students inducted to the STEM Innovation Project are sure to impress this year.

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