Science is more than theory and lecture. Science is fun. Science is hands-on. Science is…
Northern Illinois University educators often refer to the world as a learning lab where students and academics are connected through research and engagement.
This connection between students, faculty and the world happens every day at NIU and is celebrated each year at the university’s Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day (URAD) and Community Engagement Showcase (CES), which took place Tuesday, April 21, at the Holmes Student Center.
The sixth annual event featured over 200 student research projects from across the university in addition to nearly 25 community engagement projects. In fact, for the first time ever, the event featured research from Sycamore High School seniors as well as students from Waubonsee Community College.
Associate Vice Provost for Engaged Learning Julia Spears says with more than 350 student participants, this year, the event was the largest in history.
“We have students who have participated in formal research programs such as Research Rookies, McKearn Fellows, Honors Scholars or undergraduate research assistantships, as well as capstone research projects, so there’s really a variety of levels of participation in the research endeavor,” Spears explains. “Any student on campus can participate if they have a faculty mentor who’s willing to sign off on their project and get them prepared to present on this day.”
Senior mechanical engineering major Stephen Cwian, from St. Charles, presented work that the SAE Mini Baja Team members did for a national competition involving design and construction of an off-road vehicle. The team has a solid record of success, placing among the top 30 in the country on a regular basis.
“This year, we decided to—for the first time ever—make our own custom gear box,” says Cwain, noting criteria used to judge the team’s performance such as maneuverability, acceleration and design. “In the past, our gear box has given us a maximum speed of 20 to 25 miles per hour and has weighed about 40 lbs. With this new gear box, we’re going to get a speed of 30 to 35 miles per hour, and we’ve cut about 12 lbs. from the weight of the car. Weight is huge”
He says the custom gear box is a game-changer for the team that will put the team among the elite teams in the country.
NIU freshman Katie Denius, from Sycamore, is majoring in biological sciences with minors in chemistry and public health. A McKearn Fellow and research rookie, she says her research was inspired by personal experience.
“I have a condition called amblyopia, so I’m actually blind in one eye. I’ve kind of grown up in ophthalmology offices, so I decided to shift my focus towards eyes,” Denius says. “My research on campus so far has been in eye research and macular degeneration, so I’m excited to go forward and hopefully become an eye doctor.”
The specific goal of Denius’ research project is to differentiate between the two forms of age related macular degeneration (AMD), identifying biomarkers for both wet and dry AMD and determining whether the two types are actually two separate diseases.
Senior Lauren Morrison was part of a five-person team that developed the Kinect Object Retreival System, or KORS. The electrical engineering students integrated an Xbox Kinect vision system with a mechanical arm.
“Having the opportunity to work in a team has been an invaluable experience. It was fun getting to know each other and learn everyone's strengths and weaknesses,” Morrison says. “URAD was a great opportunity to share with everyone all of our hard work from the last year.”
Karen Samonds is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and was among the URAD judges.
“It’s been really positive,” she says, noting the many types of research on display. “I’m very impressed. I’ve seen everything from virtual reality research to ecological research and looking at forests and other really diverse and interesting research projects our students are involved with.”
Some students presented potential solutions to challenges they face on a daily basis locally or on campus. One such example is the concept of a smart parking lot, which would use sensors to monitor the number of available parking spaces in a campus parking lot.
“We came up with the idea to create a website for NIU parking so that students can see which parking lots have available spots before they leave so they can park,” says Itzamaray Lopez, who is getting ready to graduate in May. “It’s an application that can be used for many different things.”
Spears adds that “service projects and community engagement projects are areas where students spend a lot of time. They might not be research, but they have substantial investment in those activities.”
The NIU STEM Divas program placed first among the CES entries. Female NIU students involved in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) mentor elementary and middle school girls interested in STEM fields through a program of activities that include using chemistry to create lip gloss, manufacturing rings and earrings on a 3D printer, decorating hats with littleBits electronics and weaving bracelets with conductive thread.
Senior history and community leadership and civic engagement major Laura Korth, from Lee, Ill., got involved in the program as a Huskie Service Scholar.
“We are partnered with STEM Outreach though the Huskie Service Scholars program, and we went out into the community to work on their Saturday programs, evening programs and other activities,” Korth explains. “It was a great experience just seeing the joy in the kids’ faces and showing them that science is fun and is something they can do, too.”
She explains that the young girls take pride in being able to produce something themselves. A favorite activity this past year was making a jewelry box.
“They were just so excited about making something by themselves and adding their own creative aspects to their work,” she continues. “The girls are so excited when they’re using their tools and seeing and using the 3D printer to do their work.
“They see (Microsoft founder) Bill Gates and (Facebook’s) Mark Zuckerburg as role models, but they don’t see the female role models. By having female role models, they understand that they can do it, too.”
That’s partly what makes Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day and the Community Engagement Showcase so special. By showcasing NIU’s research, artistry and community engagement, more and more students want to take part.
“Participating all four years of my undergraduate career was one of the best things I did while an NIU student. I was able to share my story and research projects each year, but I also gained a strong knowledge of what my future entails in the academic professional realm,” says Lauren Boddy, a program assistant in the Office of Student Engagement & Experiential Learning who organized this year’s event after participating as a student. “I think this is a great door-opener for students to get involved.”
And judging by the ever-increasing number of participants, they are doing just that.
“This day helps to showcase the work we like to say is a special opportunity for students that come to Northern. So whether it’s undergraduate research or service learning—and some of these projects illustrate student participation in study abroad or international or global experiences—each are high impact practices that we really value,” Spears says. “This day is the culminating activity where you see some of that hidden work that is taking place all around us at NIU.”