From the discovery of the God particle in Switzerland to the recent announcement by the Navy of research into making fuel from seawater, many people think of big names and big results when it comes to scientific or scholarly research.
But in Winona, students at Winona State University and Saint Mary’s University have been making contributions big and small to the world’s body of knowledge, along with creating new approaches and solutions to current problems.
Both universities held celebrations of scholarship in recent weeks, showcasing ideas and results of hundreds of projects students have been working on. And both have encouraged research and scholarship among students for decades.
In today’s world, officials from both universities stress student research as a key piece in undergraduate education. Not only does it look good on a resume, it teaches hands-on learning and prepares students with problem-solving skills equally valuable in a boardroom or laboratory.
The natural world as a lab
Neither WSU nor SMU have been a stranger to student research. Both are members of the Council on Undergraduate Research, a nonprofit advocacy organization that has supported student research at colleges and universities since 1978. And both have had professors or departments supporting student research for several decades, long before current trends and popularization of student research statewide and nationally.
SMU has a nearly 90-year history of student research that goes back to the formation of the biology department and ties to environmental science and study of the region’s waterways and rivers.
“Student research has been a hallmark of Saint Mary’s for a number of years,” said Donna Aronson, SMU’s vice president for academic affairs. “These were the people who lit the flame on the importance of student research.”
The 1930s was a time of change for Saint Mary’s College, as it was known then, as the Brothers of the Christian Schools had just taken over the college from the Diocese of Winona. It was Brother Charles Severin who would build the biology department and begin a nearly century-long history of data collection on waterways like Gilmore Creek.
Severin used the environment of the region, from creeks to the bluffs, as his laboratory and classroom, teaching students ecology and biology and the fundamentals of research. His legacy would continue through the brothers and other professors that would follow, including Brother Jerome Rademacher, who taught in the university’s physics department.
That legacy of research has had a number of impacts on the community over the years. For example, during the era before and after the Clean Water Act, SMU students collected data on the effectiveness of Winona’s water treatment plant, showing the difference the newer facility and more stringent guidelines had on water quality of treated sewage entering the Mississippi River.
On a smaller scale, SMU’s decades of data collection on Gilmore Creek have allowed students, scientists and researchers at public agencies like the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to track the history and health of the creek and the impacts of large-scale agriculture.
“It’s a pretty impressive the amount of knowledge we have from the creek,” SMU professor Josh Lallaman said. “It’s nice to have this stream on campus for our students. It gives us an interesting long-term perspective on the creek.”
Winona State’s river hero, Cal Fremling, is the one biology professor Mike DeLong hails as an example of the early professors who have supported student research at the university. He too used the environment of the region as his laboratory and classroom, sharing his love of the Mississippi River and its secrets with his students.
“A lot of our early understanding of the river came from these kinds of projects,” DeLong said. “It opens up avenues for local research. Little projects where students have questions that become nice research tools.”
Real-world skills, impact
Once mainly contained to both universities’ science departments in previous decades, student research has expanded out at WSU and SMU, with students presenting work in both science fields and the liberal arts.
Both universities now host annual scholarship celebrations that showcase projects and papers from departments throughout the university. The Judith Ramaley celebration of scholarship is in its eighth year at WSU, while SMU had its second annual celebration earlier this month.
Today, many departments at both universities require or encourage scholarly work or research from students before they graduate. And the result of this focus on student research has branched out into the community and across the country.
Winona State’s department of mathematics and statistics hosted its third Midwest Undergraduate Data Analytics competition this year, hosting dozens of students from universities big and small across the region. In the two-day whirlwind session of applied statistical analysis, teams compete to come up with the best results out of large sets of data provided by competition sponsor Fastenal.
Competing with big-name schools like Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota, WSU teams have had good showings each year at the competition, and employers from across the state have signed on to sponsor the competition and recruit students who are skilled at data analysis and research.
Saint Mary’s GeoSpatial Services office is another example — it’s a national player in GIS systems, data collection and research.
From working on developing GIS systems for local governments to groundbreaking research into environmental and cultural impacts on the country’s national park systems, the office’s faculty, staff and undergraduate student workers have pioneered new methods, not only making the office marketable but also the students who work in it.
Unlike classroom learning, student research provides hands-on skills, said Patricia Rogers, WSU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. Because much of the work is original, there is no back of the book in which to find the answer to a problem. That makes research more applicable and valuable to what students will encounter in the job market or at the graduate level or higher in academia.
“The students get a lot of real, hands-on learning in their field,” Rogers said. “You can’t replicate research by reading about it. You just have to go out and do it.”
And it’s no surprise that the quality of scholarship at both universities is very high, and is something SMU is looking to market to prospective students and these skills become more valuable to graduates.
“Research is an everyday occurrence here,” Aronson said. “Our students are finding they can frame questions and find answers. These are life skills people need as human beings, and are useful for students for their entire lives.”