From Elephants to Asteroids

DSCN5735Symposium of Artists & Scholars allows Randolph students to present research

When most people think of elephants, they envision the magnificent mammals grazing peacefully in a large field in Africa or Asia. But in rural Tanzania, the animals pose a risk both to humans and themselves.

Needing as much as 500 pounds of food a day, elephants are drawn to crops grown near their habitat, especially calorie-packed corn. “They keep trying to eat the corn, which is really nutritious, and you also have the humans, who need the corn to feed their families,” said Stephanie Barron ’14. “Hatred just develops.”

Barron recently spent four weeks in Tanzania studying wildlife management, with a specific focus on mitigating conflicts between humans and elephants. When she returned, she used the research she conducted there as the focus of her senior paper. Barron then lectured on the topic for the Symposium of Artists & Scholars.

Randolph created the symposium in 2009 as a venue for students studying different disciplines to share their best work with the public. This year, more than 60 students—the most in the symposium’s history—participated, presenting on topics such as geology, astronomy, theatre, and psychology. The growing interest in the symposium has been positively impacted by an increasing number of students involved in research and hands-on activities, said Peter Sheldon, a physics professor and the director of the Center for Student Research.

“We’ve been able to put additional emphasis on the importance of student scholarship and student creative works,” he said. “That is really what we do well—the hands-on process of creative works and research.”

That act of making something—whether it is a musical composition or a research presentation—is an essential part of education, said Kwang-Wu Kim, the president of Columbia College of Chicago, who recently spoke during the Inauguration about the importance of the liberal arts.

He added that the value of the creative process is more than just an opportunity to demonstrate mastered skills. “Making is, in fact, a form of producing knowledge,” he said.

observatoryHart Gillespie ’15, for example, has been conducting research to help build one body of knowledge: where are the asteroids streaming through outer space, how fast are they going, and are any large ones on a collision course with our planet?

In the fall of 2012, he began using Randolph’s Winfree Observatory to look for an occultation, an event when an asteroid passes in front of a star and causes the star to blink out momentarily. He explained that astronomers track data about occultations to help determine the size, shape, speed, and direction of an asteroid.

Gillespie spent numerous late nights and early mornings in the observatory aiming the telescope at stars that were predicted to experience occultations. More than a year went by without success, he said. “Clouds, light pollution, and poor or unfortunate predictions foiled me every time.”

Just before 6 a.m. one day last December, he saw a star disappear on a monitor connected to the telescope. “For a split second, I thought there was a technical error,” he said. “I then realized that the time was as predicted, there were no clouds in the sky, and visibility was good. I saw an occultation!”

He later learned he was the only observer to catch that particular occultation and only the fourth person ever to see an occultation caused by the asteroid 231 Vindobona.

Also during the symposium, Sydney Henson ’14 shared her unique experience conducting research for her senior paper. A Spanish major, she traveled to Spain to walk more than 160 miles of Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage that ends at the tomb of St. James. Along the way, she interviewed other travelers to find out what they knew about Picasso’s Guernica, a work of art that commemorated air raids in Northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

After completing the trek, she flew to Madrid to examine the painting in person and interview the curator who specializes in the painting.

The symposium also highlighted research that students have conducted with faculty members. Jessica McIntosh ’16 eagerly volunteered when she learned Sarah Lawson Sojka, an environmental studies and physics professor, wanted a student to assist her with research about erosion on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Their goal was to determine ways to promote the growth of biofilm, a sticky substance that is thought to help limit soil erosion. “Since we don’t know what controls the growth of the biofilm, we can’t influence it,” McIntosh said. “If we’re able to figure out what controls the biofilm, we can use that to see if we can decrease the suspension rates and the erosion.”

The pair placed sediment and seawater samples in laboratory environments with various levels of lighting. They then tracked measurements of the water’s dissolved oxygen, acidity, and temperature to help gauge the biofilm growth.

Although their experiment did not yield conclusive results, McIntosh still gained valuable experience.

Original research is an important part of the College’s graduate education programs, and several of those students presented their findings in the symposium. Sam McGarrity ’13, who earned his Master of Arts in Teaching this year, remembered how much trouble he had sitting still in the classroom when he was younger. He wondered if he would have been able to learn better if he had been allowed to doodle or move around more.

“I had read research about how physical activity and listening comprehension were coordinated, but I hadn’t seen much about how physical activity could impact reading comprehension,” he said. So he designed a study with local special education students. McGarrity led them through different kinds of exercise before administering reading comprehension tests. Although he did not have enough students to establish statistical significance, he did see some promise. “A few of the participants saw their scores improve after the aerobic activity,” McGarrity said.

In addition to being the largest Symposium of Artists & Scholars, this year’s event may have been the most creative, too. It included readings of poetry, displays of digital art, and a theatre performance that concluded the event.

RKO_Symposium-13Matt Cornpropst ’14 and Sonja Cirilo ’15 performed part of Oleanna, the College’s spring theatre production, for their symposium presentation. The play tells the story of a college professor and a student locked in a war of words and allegations that put the professor’s future at stake. Their selection for the symposium ended with Cirilo shouting for help, leaving the audience curious and anxious to see the rest of the play.

Oleanna is a complex play that can be seen in several different ways, and Cornpropst and Cirilo said that the liberal arts background they have from other classes helped them convey the story.

Cornpropst’s character mentions Stoic philosophers at one point in the play, so he used lessons from a philosophy class to get more in character. “That is a body of knowledge that that character is tappinginto,”hesaid.“Itinfluences how he’s trying to communicate with his student.”

Cirilo said her other studies have helped her develop a deeper understanding of the characters, which a play like Oleanna demands. “Studying here at Randolph has helped me to value empathy,” she said. “You need to understand why you’re saying these things, and what the message you’re trying to communicate to the audience is.”

Barron reached the same conclusion.

Looking back on her recent research in Tanzania, Barron said her background in sociology and economics helped her approach the problem of human and elephant conflict with more effective ideas. “Having actually gone there in the field, I’ve realized how important sociology and ethics are to wildlife conservation,” she said.

“Education is what you make it,” Barron added. “The liberal arts allow you to find many different passions in life, and maybe that one new passion.”