Students shine bright at Academic Symposium 2014

By: Mark Tarnacki
Art student Mazanec and Biology Professor Loisel

Carefully-rendered individual portraits of students, viewed together in rapid succession, made an animated statement about our common human experience.

This was Jake Mazanec' 14 explaining the basics of his senior art project during the poster session of Saturday's Saint Michael's College Academic Symposium Session in the new Dion Family Student Center - though by extended metaphor, he might have been summing up this year's campus-wide symposium itself.

Part of Mazanec's display, assembled with guidance from his art professor Will Mentor, was a playful experiment in animation through a beautiful pencil-drawing series that he'd made of friends or family voicing common phrases like "I love you." He also displayed examples of his "pyrography" – wood-burned images of his own hands holding dining utensils.

Beyond Mazanec's display by the Roy Event Room door, long display tables were arranged into aisles throughout the bright and expansive space on Dion's third floor, where about 75 well-dressed students stood by to explain their work. Some academic disciplines had scores of presenters – psychology, chemistry/biochemistry, business and public policy – while others such as art, physics, education, sociology, economics/geography or media studies, journalism & digital arts (MJD), had one or two.  Faculty circulated too, either as advisers or simply appreciators and supporters. Business and MJD had their own departmental showcases earlier in the week but a few students joined the poster session too.

Anybody walking through Dion Center or the Jeanmarie academic classroom building on Friday or Saturday would have been impressed by the sheer scope and quality of diverse research, poised presentations and useful life-learning on display. One of those hundreds of walkers and viewers was the college's Vice President for Academic Affairs Karen Talentino, who was smiling from ear to ear.

"I couldn't be more proud of our students and our faculty – this event gets better every year I think," she said, thanks in part to the staff who work out the logistics, "but beginning with the students whose motivation and excitement and idealism really encourages our incredible faculty who work with them. Just amazing projects have been accomplished."

"It begins with President Jack Neuhauser who believes as I do very strongly in the power of undergraduate research," Talentino said, "and we've tried to really create a system over the last six years that promotes that, encourages it, supports it, and we have alumni who support it too."

A new feature this year was a more comprehensive display of community-based experiential learning opportunities in a "Showcase" on Dion's second floor common area. Joan Wagner, director of the Center for Community-Engaged Learning, had arranged handsome pedestals and descriptive plaques with student-authored text and an "artifact" from each community-based learning opportunity represented. Some examples were MOVE Extended Service (scrapbook by Celsey Lumbra '16 of her food-mission work in Baltimore); Psychology Practicum (Emma Watson '14, a simple black box representing "fear of the unknown"; Wilderness Program (broken paddle remnants, "a reminder that things in life do not always go as planned" from Joe Coughlan '14); Onion River Review literary journal copies, from Amy Wilson '14, an editor of that Review: plus other artifacts and reflections from Correctional Volleyball, Edmundite Campus Ministry, Purple Knights Leadership Academy, internships, resident assistants, study abroad, Student Association, and others.

A viewer favorite was from David Weiss '14 of the Fire & Rescue squad – his "stork pin." His accompanying text told the story of helping deliver a baby on one of his calls, earning him a pin that many rescue squad professionals work a whole career without receiving. Weiss's Rescue experiences have included saving lives and witnessing deaths, and he wrote of the growth he experienced through all of it.

In Jeanmarie on Friday and Saturday, students made oral presentations numbering more than 150 in two days, broken into panels of three or four at a time – each talk perhaps 20 minute long, with question session. They represented nearly 20 academic disciplines or were based on study-abroad and experiential learning. Talentino stopped in on several, and during a history panel Saturday, heard one of two presentations about Saint Michael's and Society of Saint Edmund history, based on primary research in the college Archives -- one on the founding of the college due to political forces in France at the turn of the last century, while the other was on the GI Bill and how it revolutionized and grew Saint Michael's exponentially in size and quality.

A swing through the poster session Saturday offered a rich and varied sampler of Saint Michael's student scholarship:

Dave Landers was proudly surveying posters from students in his psychology practicum. He explained how the students are in the community 8 to 10 hours a week all year, at all sorts of agencies, and how he loves "watching their growth from back in September when they came in absolutely scared to death." He's had students work "with adults with schizophrenia, alcohol and drug issues, abused children, really heavy stuff, so watching them travel through helping their friends understand it, but also knowing they have each other in class to understand it, is what makes this so powerful." Julia Phillips '14 of North Haven, CT, worked with Alzheimer's patients at a Shelburne facility and now likes her chances for a job in the field, she said, though it was her first experience with such a population. Chris King '14 worked with Team Phoenix at Winooski High School, a program for emotionally disturbed kids. "I learned the skills I needed to deal with childhood behavior and social-emotional problems which will be important for what I'm looking to do," he said.

Chemistry Professor Bret Findley was with students presenting on a chemistry laboratory exercise analyzing a dye and how it interacts with solvent. Kim Brady '15 and Nathan Paluso '15, from New Jersey and Maine respectively, both chemistry majors, said it taught them critical lab procedures and "how electrons work, which is what all pre-chem is based on,"  as Brady put it. Paluso explained how the dye "absorbs an electron, but now it's really excited and unstable but slowly relaxes itself until it emits that electron and gives off a lime-green light."

Carl-Oskar Bredengen '14 and Fredrik Sandell '15, both members of the college's alpine ski team from Norway and business majors, were dressed in sharp blue blazers and ties and had a poster exploring universal healthcare, Obamacare and the system in Norway, produced for a Business and Public Policy Class with Robert Letovsky.  "We do health care differently from the U.S., but we're a small country and that might be a reason why it works so well for us," one of them speculated.

Dagan Loisel of the biology faculty said projects from his department included two students who worked with him on immune genetic variation and pathogens in wild bobcats samples; another was by a student who had a National Science Foundation grant and worked in a lab at a large Midwestern university for a summer. Another student took aspects of animal behavior and tried to design an experiment, analyze the data and present it, guided by Valerie Banschbach of biology. "Another student self-published a book, one created a web site, there's posters – you name it, we've got it," Loisel said.

Shannon Conroy, chemistry and physics double-major, wore a silk dress to help illustrate her project exploring some scientific experimentation that silk producers are doing by feeding dyes directly to silkworms in order to color the silk. "I'm more into the material chemistry side of things so I was looking at different ways we can make the world we have better as opposed to people's individual lives as with, say, cancer research," she said, adding she hopes for a career in materials or industrial chemistry to combine both her physics and chemistry background.

Green Lemnah '14 and her MJD project partner Gracie Barney '14 looked at end-of-life legislation in Vermont, following a bill through its passage and doing a documentary film exploring issues like hospice and palliative care. Lemnah said as a Vermonter from Lyndonville she felt she had a direct interest in such legislation. Nick Kyratzis and his group displayed a business plan to take water from reverse osmosis of maple syrup and make it into alcohol, flavoring a resulting vodka product with hybrid organic fruits from Vermont farms.

Kyratzis said that while this was the first time Academic Symposium fell on the traditional campus celebration called "P-Day," he liked that students could "show off all the hard work you've done and afterward you get to celebrate with great friends and great professors, so it's a really nice day."  Student life officials reported afterward that P-Day went well this year with no negative issues or outcomes to report.

Dean Jeffrey Trumbower said he was "very impressed" with the community-engaged learning display "so that as younger students go through and see it, they can realized 'here's all the different ways we can fulfill the experiential learning requirement' that students, starting with the Class of '15, will have to fulfill."

Said Talentino, "Today and yesterday have just been a tremendous experience for me to see the outcomes of all we've done by actively promoting faculty/student research in terms of student learning and student professionalism."

The organizer of all the Symposium events logistically was Angela Irvine, director for foundation relations and sponsored programs. "It's such a privilege to see the work that our students do and the work our faculty do to encourage them to think critically, and I am always amazed at the range of their interests and the depth of what they think about," she said. "It makes me really hopeful about the future. They really care about what they're doing, both the faculty and the students, and you can feel that during this event."

Photo above: Art major Jake Mazanec shows Biology Professor Dagan Loisel his work during Academic Symposium 2014 on Saturday in the Dion Student Center's Roy Event Room.

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