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Students Win Awards in National Statistics Competition

USPROCTwo groups of Grinnell College students won awards at this year’s Undergraduate Statistics Project Competition (USPROC) sponsored by the American Statistical Association and the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education. USPROC is an annual national competition among undergraduate students in the United States.

Alex Schmiechen ’17 and Zina Ibrahim ’17 won first place in the subcategory “First Course in Statistics.” Their project, titled Upvote or Downvote: What Makes Yik Yak Posts Popular?, was completed as part of the course Applied Statistics (MAT 209).

Their study examined Yik Yak, the anonymous social medial platform that is widely used on college campuses, in which users can indicate their liking for a post by “upvoting” or “downvoting” it. Schmiechen and Ibrahim’s study aimed to “determine potential indicators of popularity” and counted the upvotes of posts based on categories such as amount of humor, academic level, love life relevance, and whether or not it was a question.

Clark Fancher ’15, Josh Vernazza ’15, and Zack Davis ’16 won second place in the subcategory “Intermediate-level Applied Statistics Course.” Their project was titled An Examination of Age of First Drink and Effects of Church Attendance by Gender, and was carried out in the course Statistical Modeling (MAT 310).

They initially came up with this topic due to its relevance on college campuses. “Since underage alcohol consumption is so rampant throughout college campuses, we thought a study examining the age of first drink consumption would be interesting,” Davis said. They used survival analysis to model drinking patterns in Iowa youth. They also found that male church-goers have their first drink later than their female counterparts, which was different from conclusions reached in previous literature.

The results of both studies are significant in part because they pertain to current issues. Schmiechen and Ibrahim’s study highlights that further analysis could “lead to further insight into popular culture” and also be “a tool to examine a student body’s mental health”. Fancher, Vernazza, and Davis’ study addresses the benefits of decreasing underage drinking, and discusses the efficacy of after-school church programs delaying the age of first drink consumption.

Both projects were from courses taught by Professor Shonda Kuiper of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. These achievements highlight the College’s advancement in statistics education. “Students of Grinnell College are doing innovative research projects related to current events in their lives, while also utilizing advanced multivariate statistical modeling techniques,” Kuiper said.

In addition to a monetary award, both groups were invited to give a plenary talk on October 2, 2015, for the First Annual Electronic Undergraduate Statistics Research Conference.

Observing the Stars and Planets

If you’re interested in astronomy, “Grinnell is one of the best places you can go,” says Bob Cadmus, professor of physics. Grinnell — without offering a major in astronomy — has graduated about one student per year who goes on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Cadmus attributes that strong record to students’ focus on physics and the liberal arts as well as their independent work in astronomy.

Some of that work occurs in the Grant O. Gale Observatory, which sits on the north edge of campus, within easy walking distance of residence halls. Cadmus says the proximity to campus was intentional, to make it more accessible to students. Another plus — since the town of Grinnell is small, there’s little light pollution.

The Search for Exoplanets

Jack Muskopf ’16 and Andrew Baldrige ’17, both physics majors, are working in the observatory this summer on Mentored Advanced Projects. Their faculty mentor, Eliza Kempton, assistant professor of physics, studies exoplanets. More than 1,000 exoplanets — planets outside our solar system — have been discovered since 1995.

“We can look at transiting exoplanets fairly easily with our telescope,” Kempton says. The observatory has a 24-inch Cassegrain telescope. “We do real research with this thing.”

Muskopf and Baldrige have been testing a new camera, which will be installed on the telescope soon. Then they’ll be pulling all-nighters in the observatory, processing digital images of exoplanets that are passing in front of their own stars, up to 100 million light-years away.

Muskopf says he’s excited to work in the observatory and “get really high quality photos of stars and have some interesting, useful data.”

Baldrige says, “Every once in a while I sit back and think that I am looking at numbers on a screen right now, but these numbers represent that 100 million light-years away, I know that there’s a star that has a planet orbiting around it.”

Kempton hopes to start training students to use the telescope and help with the data processing. She says it’s an ideal place to get students involved, and they don’t need to be physics majors.

Attracting the Masses

All students are welcome to the observatory during open house events held throughout the year. Baldrige visited it during New Student Orientation his first year. “I looked at a galaxy and it was really clear in the telescope. It was cool because it was something you could never see with a hobbyist’s telescope,” he says.

Cadmus offers open house events to everyone from pre-school children to adults in the community, from current students to alumni. Every summer he offers a workshop for middle-school children and especially tries to interest girls in astronomy.

Jack Muskopf ’16 is from Millstadt, Ill.; Andrew Baldrige ’17 is from Ames, Iowa.

Climate Reality

Elizabeth QueathemLiz Queathem, senior lecturer in Biology and co-chair of the Sustainability Planning Committee, will deliver a public lecture on the current state of climate change, and the prospects for progress at the United National Climate Change Conference that will take place in Paris Nov. 30—Dec. 11, 2015.

Queathem will present "Climate Reality:  Problems and Solutions on the Road to Paris" at 4 p.m., Friday, October 2, in Robert N. Noyce '49 Science Center, Room 1023.

The presentation is co-sponsored by the Rosenfield Program and Center for Prairie Studies.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. You can request accommodations from the event sponsor or Conference Operations.

Observatory Opens Doors to Young Students

Summer Observatory ProgramGrinnell College’s Summer Astronomy Program for students entering sixth, seventh, or eighth grade this fall offers the opportunity to explore planets, stars, and galaxies.

The program, set for 8 p.m. July 21, 22, and 23, features presentations, activities, and discussions. Weather permitting, each two-hour session will include observing astronomical objects with the telescope at the College's Grant O. Gale Observatory.

The observatory is north of Tenth Avenue and west of the railroad tracks; north of the baseball diamond and track.

Topics to be covered are:

July 21: Planets
What are planets like?
What makes a planet suitable for life?
Is there life elsewhere in our solar system, or in other solar systems?
July 22: Stars
What makes stars shine?
Where do stars come from and why do some of them end their lives as black holes?
What kinds of stars might have planets that could support life?
July 23: Galaxies and the Universe
What is the universe like?
How much do we know about where it came from and what will happen to it in the future?

The program is free and open to students entering sixth, seventh, and eighth grade this fall. Students who will start ninth grade this fall also may attend, if space permits. To register, call 269-3172 by Friday, July 17.

Although participants are encouraged to attend all three sessions, it’s possible to attend one or two. Each student may be accompanied by one adult.

For more information, contact Professor of Physics Bob Cadmus at 269-3016, 269-3014, or 236-8398.

Changing the Face of Science

Jessi L. Smith, a noted expert on social psychology, will deliver the Scholars' Convocation at noon Wednesday, April 1, in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101. The lecture is free and open to the public with a free pizza lunch provided.

Smith, a professor of psychology at Montana State University, has conducted extensive research on theories of stereotypes, with a focus on understanding the practices and policies that create equitable environments. At MSU, she chairs a 47-member team charged with enhancing faculty diversity and equity in order to foster learning among all faculty and students.

Smith's talk, titled "Changing the Face of Science: How to Create a More Diverse and Inclusive STEM Community," will feature Smith's work in experimental social psychological science. Smith will present her findings on the prevalent role of unintentional biases within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community, and discuss how to create more equitable environments in these fields.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Rosenfield Center has accessible parking in the lot to the east. Room 101 is equipped with an induction hearing loop system. You can request accommodations from Conference Operations.

For the Love of Science

Before classes begin, the Grinnell Science Project (GSP) brings together selected students who are interested in science and creates a community that helps them feel comfortable with college life both inside and outside the classroom.

“GSP was a huge blessing. For one thing, the program got me a head start on understanding the confusing passageways of the mysterious Noyce Science Center. But it did so much more than that. I met a lot of people who shared my common interests, was acquainted with professors that I had class with later in my college career, and gained a lot of confidence in myself during GSP,” says Lizzie Eason ’17, who participated in the program last year.

GSP students meeting with a birdOne aspect of the program is a week-long pre-orientation  program.  Over the course of a week, students learn about the services and structures of the College.

The program responds to different learning styles — favoring workshop- and project-based classes in addition to lectures — and provides both role models and contexts for the study of science. “Grinnell students feel that they are part of a scientific community, we accommodate different learning styles with different pedagogical approaches, and we involve students in faculty research from the beginning of their experience here,” says Jim Swartz, Dack Professor of Chemistry.

Faculty members discuss various aspects of Grinnell’s academic program and strategies for excelling in science and mathematics courses. The GSP students participate in both sample classes and a research project.

“It was nice to just get used to the college environment without having to stress about classes. I could take time to really make friends, get advice from professors, and just enjoy myself, which is something I don't think I would have had much time to do if I had come to Grinnell when classes began,” says Eason.

Students work together to solve a puzzleIn the early 1990s, Grinnell observed that students — especially women, first-generation college students, and students of color — would enter Grinnell intending to major in the sciences, then fail to do well in the introductory courses and choose a major in another division. With data gathered from students, the College discovered that environmental and socioeconomic factors were interfering with students’ academic success in the sciences.

GSP teaches science the way science is actually practiced. It also creates a peer as well as faculty and staff support network for students. In addition to GSP participants, lots of other students have benefitted from curricular changes that accompanied the Grinnell Science Project.

“One of the most significant measures of success is that components of the Grinnell Science Project are now mainstream throughout our science curriculum,” says Swartz. Grinnell’s introductory biology course, which is required for all biology and biological chemistry majors is project-based. Introductory computer science courses are designed similarly, and mathematics, chemistry, physics, and psychology courses use a number of active learning techniques.

In the three years before GSP began, an average of 42 women and eight students of color graduated with science degrees each year. By 2008, each number had more than doubled. Ninety women and 21 students of color graduated with science degrees that year. Hundreds of students have participated in GSP, and thousands more benefited from curricular changes and mentoring relationships established by the program.

Lizzie Eason ’17 is from Lamoni, Iowa and has not yet declared a major.

2014 GSP students, faculty, and staff

2014 Grinnell Science Project

Converting Waste on Mount Everest

In the 61 years after it was first summited, Mount Everest has called tens of thousands of climbers to its icy trails. They focus on death-defying physical and mental achievements, but they face a more mundane summons on the mountain: nature’s call.

Every climbing season, up to 26,500 pounds of human excrement befoul Everest, most of it bagged and carried by native Sherpas to earthen pits near Gorak Shep, a frozen lake bed and village at 16,942 feet. But space is running short, and fecal coliform bacteria threaten the nearby Khumbu Glacier watershed.

Nate Janega ’06 is hoping to help solve the disposal problem. As senior engineer with the Seattle-based Mount Everest Biogas Project, Janega is designing a biogas digester that could convert the waste to methane gas. The digesters are common around the world — including in the United States, where cow manure is turned into energy — but the machinery never has been attempted in such a frigid climate.

“It’s pretty much a frozen desert,” says Janega, whose designs call for insulation and solar panels, which will provide the digester’s heat. “It’s difficult because the digester’s temperature has to be kept between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius, which is much higher than the usual ambient temperature.”

Project members hope to finalize the design this year to they can start building the underground digester next spring. The contraption is the size of a small to medium backyard storage shed. Processed waste could yield up to 667 liters of biogas a day, which would generate 50–80% of the heating value of a 20-pound propane tank, the size typically used for gas barbecue grills.

The effort builds on efforts to minimize people’s impact on the mountain. Officials in Nepal, whose economy is reliant on the climbing industry, have required each climber in recent years to pack out 18 pounds of garbage – everything from oxygen bottles to broken tent parts. They now fear human waste has reached a critical mass on Everest.

Everest camp“Every climbing season sees more human waste dropped there, and there’s this overwhelming sense that as climbing becomes more accessible, the problem could grow,” Janega says.

The path to the Himalayas wasn’t always so clear to Janega. As a kid, he loved building creations with Legos, but an idealistic streak didn’t initially draw him to engineering.

“By high school, I had clearly seen the destructive influence of humans on the rest of nature,” Janega says. “I knew that I wanted my life and work to change that habit, but I didn’t know how.”

It was at Grinnell that he enrolled in a First-Year Tutorial and studied the role of biogas in China. There, biogas is credited with slowing the rate of deforestation by providing families an alternative heating source. Janega decided to major in biochemistry.

“The classes I took (at Grinnell) changed the way I analyze and absorb information. It’s a culture of expanding the mind that is still important to me today.” He went on to earn a civil environmental engineering graduate degree at the University of Washington in Seattle. For the biogas project, he’s one of six volunteer engineers. Last spring, Janega traveled to Nepal in part to survey possible sites for the digester.

This is an urgent matter. Water sampling on the mountain has shown E. coli levels are high enough to be health-threatening.

Janega made a quick impression on Garry Porter, a retired Boeing engineer who is the biogas project’s program manager.

“Nate is an incredibly bright and enthusiastic young man with a broad worldview,” Porter says. “He has a can-do attitude that sometimes gets beaten out of old engineers like myself. He’s the pointy edge of the sword right now.”

Bridges to New Understanding

The 14 students in physics Professor Charles Cunningham’s Bridges, Towers, and Skyscrapers course had the opportunity to experience the mind-broadening effects of world travel over spring break.

This 100-level physics class is one of several courses that incorporates travel into the curriculum. Other classes have studied the cultural and political history of Berlin in Berlin, economics in Seoul, biology in Namibia, and anthropology in Costa Rica.

Getting Ready

In the week before the spring semester began, the Bridges, Towers, and Skyscrapers students returned to campus and received an intensive introduction to the physical principles used to analyze structures and the materials they are composed of.

For the first eight weeks of the semester, the class worked through case studies and learned how to analyze common structural features.

Each student selected a major structure in the United Kingdom and wrote a paper examining the history of the structure and its societal impact.

Being There

Group photo of the course's travelersDuring spring break, the class members visited their chosen structures in the U.K.

Each student presented a talk about one of the structures’ history, design, and function.

The class toured each bridge, tower, and skyscraper, and discovered that there was nothing quite like being there. Being in the presence of the engineering feats that they had previously seen only in books and online gave the students an increased appreciation and understanding of the significance of each structure’s design and context.

The trip was about more than just seeing the structures. “In today’s global marketplace, expanding students’ worldviews has never been more important,” says Cunningham.

Prior to the trip to the U.K., Eden Marek ’15, an art and Spanish double major, found the physics of the Millennium Gateway Bridge difficult to explain. “But being able to actually walk around it and see it open made everything so understandable,” she says.

Aaron Mardis ’15, a math major working toward a teaching license, agreed. “Seeing the bridge in person was a really great experience; things I had been studying in the classroom for so long really clicked,” he says. He believes the experience will help him post-graduation. “As a future math teacher, I believe this experience will help me better educate and direct my own students,” he says.

Finishing Up

After returning to campus, Cunningham’s students revised their presentations to reflect the new, deeper understandings they have of both the physical structures and their social and cultural contexts.

A Force of Nature

Tayler Chicoine ’14 often can be found on an environmental mission, testing the waters of Little Bear Creek in Grinnell, Iowa.

Like many Grinnell students, Chicoine has taken full advantage of Grinnell College’s exceptional array of internships, Mentored Advanced Projects, and volunteer opportunities in the community. In spring 2014, she became Grinnell’s first Newman Civic Fellow, recognized for her work to protect local waterways. The fellowships — presented by Campus Compact, a national coalition of 1,100 college and university presidents committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education — are designed to honor and support the next generation of public problem-solvers and civic leaders.

The Des Moines, Iowa native always enjoyed being outdoors. “Some of my best memories were creek stomping and catching frogs,” Chicoine says of her childhood.

Now, her purpose in visiting waterways has evolved into the kind of socially responsible, results-driven work one expects from Grinnell College students.

Which stands to reason. She is the great-granddaughter of former U.S. Rep. Neal Smith, whose name adorns the National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City, Iowa, about 35 miles west of Grinnell. Her great-grandmother, Bea, Smith’s wife, graduated from Grinnell in 1945.

Chicoine visited Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge regularly as a child to see the bison herd. All her creek-stomping and interest in ecology led to a biology major at Grinnell, a highly ranked national liberal arts college. She returned to the refuge for an internship in summer 2011.

Chicoine plans a special project through Grinnell’s Center for Prairie Studies: she will interview her great-grandfather about prairie, the environment, and his long political career. Chicoine is on the center’s advisory board.

Checking for pollution, calling for action

Checking a sampleMuch of Chicoine’s environmental work has involved monitoring, and trying to curb water pollution in the Poweshiek County area. She has won several awards and grants.

As part of a fall 2013 Mentored Advanced Project with Doug Caulkins, professor emeritus of anthropology at Grinnell, Chicoine designed and conducted a community survey on watershed awareness. The survey showed that most members of the local community didn’t know where their water came from or that there were pollution threats to the local water supply. Following the survey, Chicoine told children in elementary school classrooms about watershed issues, presented water-quality information to civic organizations, and, with the support of IOWATER, founded and trained a group of students to regularly test and monitor various sites in local watersheds.

She helped established eco-coalitions among local organizations.

“I learned to translate my own biological background into common knowledge and to help people care about a watershed that, before they knew its name, was an unimportant landscape,” said Chicoine.

In spring 2014, Chicoine helped organize teams that will label storm-sewer drains so local residents know that anything they dump down the sewer goes straight into Little Bear Creek.

In summer 2014, she will head to Namibia on a Grinnell Corps assignment that will involve work in information technology and as a research assistant.

Chicoine is “indefatigable”

Her adviser, David Campbell, Henry R. Luce Professor of Nations and the Global Environment, says there is something special in Chicoine’s approach.

“I am awed by Tayler; she’s indefatigable,” Campbell says. “She’s a force of nature. I don’t think that it ever crosses her mind not to be busy, not to be learning, not to be working, not to be fully engaged in her community."

Mindy Sieck, watershed coordinator for the Poweshiek Soil and Water Conservation District, welcomed Chicoine’s drive, too. “Tayler Chicoine is very passionate about water conservation and has been an asset to the Little Bear Creek Watershed Project,” Sieck says.

While interning at the district in summer 2012, Chicoine encouraged residents in town to install rain gardens and to use other practices that are gentle on waterways.

Service in Africa

Now, Chicoine turns her attention to Africa.

After a year in Namibia, Chicoine plans to pursue graduate school, probably in geography or ecology. "I want to understand how people interact with the landscape and help discover how we can form a more sustainable relationship between nature and human needs," she says. “In Africa, I will look for the question that will inspire me for the rest of my life.”

Grinnell has made that inspiration possible.

Tayler Chicoine ’14 is a biology major from Des Moines.

Tayler Chicoine in waders reflected in water's surface

Willing to Experiment

In fall 2014, students enrolling in the newly redesigned course Computer Science 322: Team Software Development for Community Organizations will help test a new approach to alumni participation in the curriculum.

Janet Davis, associate professor of computer science, has redesigned the course to incorporate alumni mentors with industry experience. Small project teams of students will get the benefit of practical advice and assistance from alumni.

The effort comes with the support of the Alumni Relations staff and the Center for Careers, Life, and Service, which actively engage alumni in key campus programs and services.

Ian Young ’08 thinks it’s a really good idea. A computer science major, Young went into industry right after graduation. He’s a Ruby on Rails web developer and has been a freelancer since October 2013.

“There was definitely a lot for me to learn in industry,” Young says. “I had to apply what I learned at Grinnell.”

Students Will Benefit from Alumni Industry Experience

Young was one of the first students Davis got to know when she came to Grinnell in 2006. It was a conversation with him that made her realize that alumni mentors could do more than advise on the technical side of things.

Young explains, “What makes you valuable in the real world is a lot more about what you can build, your skill with tools, how well you communicate with clients and understand what they need.”

Davis is enthusiastic about inviting young alums — those who have been out of college for five to 10 years — back to campus. They remember well what it was like to be students themselves. Plus current students can relate to them.

A History of Bringing Alums to Campus

Asking alumni to share their expertise with students isn’t new, however. Doug Caulkins, professor emeritus of anthropology, was one of the pioneers in inviting alums to help with courses. He did this through Creative Careers: Learning from Alumni offerings, in which alums from many different fields come to campus and talk about their careers with students. In computer science, Professor Samuel Rebelsky also has taught classes featuring alumni.

Davis’s course is taking the approach even further. Computer Science 321 will be the first regular academic course that incorporates alumni expertise into the curriculum.

Innovation Grant Funds Pilot

It’s the first step in a three-year pilot project funded by a college Innovation Fund grant. The Fund supports promising ideas proposed by faculty, staff, and students for new approaches to teaching and scholarship, as well as student-initiated proposals that enrich campus life and learning.

The grant pays for a part-time staff person to work with faculty members across campus. This person will consult with faculty members about how alumni expertise can be effectively integrated into courses. The staff member will also handle research and the logistics involved in getting alumni to campus.

Mark Peltz expects the hire to come this summer. Peltz is the Daniel '77 and Patricia Jipp Finkelman '80 Dean in the Center for Careers, Life, and Service.

Peltz hopes the outcomes of the project will be so profound that the program will continue. Alumni bring knowledge and experience that complement what the College’s world-class faculty offers, he adds.

They also show vividly the achievement that can come for those with a Grinnell education. Peltz says, “Alumni engagement opens windows for students to see what graduates of a liberal arts college can do.”