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Freshmen Research Projects Proving Successful

SOCORRO, N.M. June 20, 2013 – A new initiative to engage freshmen is taking off like wildfire. The Living Learning Community program was initiated in 2011 with one cohort of students. This past year, the program was expanded to three groups of freshmen, with two more groups added in for the coming academic year.

The program groups about 20 students together in linked classes and living on the same floor of the same dorm. They also undertake a year-long research project.

This year’s three cohorts were in Mobile Computing, Earth Sciences, and Sustainability. The Mobile Computing group created new Android apps. The Earth Sciences group, dubbed “SpaceShip Earth,” conducted four experiments in LincolnCounty. The Sustainability group worked on projects that included installation of wind turbines and photovoltaics on campus.

In the program’s third year, which starts in the fall 2013 semester, two new Living Learning Communities will come on line. Physics professor Dr. Peter Hofner will lead an astronomy group that will build a radiotelescope to observe Jupiter. In mechanical engineering, Dr. Julie Ford and Dr. Michael Hargather will lead a group that will build experimental rockets.

So far, professors, students and staff are giving the program rave reviews for engaging new students and improving the rate at which they return for their sophomore year.

Geology professor Dr. Penny Boston led the Spaceship Earth teams. She entered the program with low expectations of producing meaningful research, but was impressed by her students.

“They are doing science in an ensemble way,” she said. “They are just out of high school with no field or lab experience and they stepped up to the plate. I am stupefyingly proud of them … and they’re all coming back next year.”

LLC-2013-SSE Capitan-Gap

 She split her cohort into four teams that each conducted a separate-but-related research project about the ecosystem around SnowyRiver in LincolnCounty. Students did (1) remote sensing, (2) how fire affects forest biology, (3) geobiology and (4) geology. Each of the four groups presented their research at the Student Research Symposium in April.

(At right, Dr. Penny Boston (center, in hood) talks to her freshman Spaceship Earth class.)

Boston said she expects each team to be able to publish their results. She has consulted with Greer Price, director of the Bureau of Geology and a special student edition of New Mexico Geology is planned that will feature those papers and research from other students.

LLC-2013-SSE Valley-of-Fires

In each cohort, students typically are together for two or three classes each semester. The Living Learning Community concept intends to not only help students learn and develop positive study habits, but also help them make friends and connect to the institution.

(At right, students hike at the Valley of Fires State Park near Carrizozo during a field excursion for the Spaceship Earth class.)

Omar Hurab, a chemistry sophomore, participated in the first LLC last year and was hired as a teaching assistant, or “learning coach,” for the sustainability cohort this year.

“I met my first friends at Tech through the LLC and we’re still friends,” he said. “You can get help on anything 24/7. All of us know each other; we study together and do homework together. It was awesome. I applied to be a learning coach because I felt like the freshmen needed a learning coach with experience [in the LLC].”

Daniel Gruenig, a freshman in computer science, said, “The LLC is about doing research and it’s been a rewarding experience to design and present research.”

Jason Kritter, another freshman, said, “We live together and it’s very easy to work together. And where else can you do research as a freshman?”

That camaraderie also helped the instructors. Dr. Ken Minschwaner of the Physics Department said he found that he didn’t have to repeat himself very often.

“If 10 people have a question in the lab, I don’t have to show all 10,” he said. “They teach each other.”

In the initial LLC group on sustainability, environmental engineering professor Dr. Frank Huang took a strong engineering approach. Minschwaner, in the project’s second year, took an atmospheric physics approach that coordinated laboratory activities with topics covered in Dr. Sharon Session’s LLC course on weather and climate.  

In each cohort, the classes are tailored to relate to the overarching theme. In the build-up to installing renewable energy equipment atop WorkmanCenter, students learned MATLAB, launched a weather balloon, measured the sun’s spectral output to calculate its emission temperature, and applied trigonometry skills to calculate the changing angle of sunlight through the day.

“I feel they need exposure to MATLAB early so they can plot and analyze data,” Minschwaner said. “And because the angle of the sun during the day plays a big part in how much solar power you can get, that’s a real-world application of trigonometry. It’s a good way to involve math.”

In addition to Boston’s class, her Spaceship Earth students took an English class with Roland Rowe that dealt specifically with taking field notes and writing abstracts. They also took two sections of chemistry with Dr. Michael Pullin, who adapted the curriculum to take a novel approach and look at water and the environment to illustrate chemical principles.

Boston also had assistance from Dr. Jan Hendrickx, a remote sensing expert in hydrology, Title V Project Director Lisa Majkowski and graduate student Drea Killingsworth, who provided instruction on writing and presenting research.

LLC-2013-mobile-app-team-MG 0358

Dr. Jun Zheng taught the computer science cohort. His group was divided into four teams that each created an Android cell phone app that can serve Tech students, employees and visitors.

The four apps are (1) a campus map created in Google’s App Inventor, (2) a campus app written in Java, (3) a bookstore app that also links to other book sellers, and (4) a user-friendly interface with Moodle, the campus portal for academics.

(At right, three students present their research during a Computer Science Department seminar. This team was working on a mobile app for Droid phones that includes interfaces to New Mexico Tech online services and a campus map.)

“They’re freshmen – you don’t know what they’ll produce,” Zheng said. “But it’s amazing what they can do. The majority of them don’t have a programming background, so this is a good introduction.”

Each team divvied up the tasks to finish their projects. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop apps that make campus life easier – to be more efficient and more productive students or to facilitate navigating campus for newcomers.

Each of his four teams presented their work at the Student Research Symposium in April. They presented three posters and one oral presentation. He hopes that the campus map app can be launched in the near future and available via Google Play.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech