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STEM Beat

In search of beautiful ideas

Eric Scheidecker, a graduate student in mathematics

Eric Scheidecker had glimpses of “what being a graduate student in the math department was like” during his regular visits to the math tutoring lab in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa. And he liked what he saw.
 
“I had heard good things about UNI’s math department while I was at Hawkeye Community College, and I knew UNI worked well with transfer students,” he recalls.
 
However, seeing graduate students at work in the math tutoring lab made his decision to enroll in the graduate program “a lot easier,” he adds.
 
Eric now feels the decision has returned rich dividend.
 
“My experience at UNI has been positive,” he says. “The math department is relatively small, so class sizes tend to be small and instruction more personalized.”
 
“My professor are enthusiastic about the topics that they teach,” he adds. “Their enthusiasm makes getting through difficult materials a lot more enjoyable.”
 
Thus far, Discrete and Argumentative Mathematics has been Eric’s favorite.
 
“Broadly speaking, the course is on basic proof-writing technique,” he explains. “You are given problems and the tools to solve them, and then you break into groups and argue about how to solve the problems.’
 
“You make presentations on a regular basis but it’s in front of the people you have been talking to the entire semester,” he goes on. “The experience has helped me in every math class that I have taken since.”
 
Eric also marks the research he has been involved with recently as a high point.
 
“I spent a few months doing research with a professor,” he recalls. “Working on new mathematics is strange as well as awe-inspiring for me.”
 
“Most of what I have learned until now is considered relatively recent even if it is a century old,” he adds.
 
How Eric spends his free time depends on how much free time he actually has. “I usually spend my free time reading or watching movies with my friends,” he says.
 
 
More often than not, though, free time is quite rare. How does he maintain a social life then? “Online gaming has been a good way to maintain a social life,” he replies.
 
Last spring, Eric was involved with the preparatory work for the UNI STEM Summer Camps; he found the experience both challenging and enjoyable.
 
“The work was almost never the same from week to week, and I had to learn some new skills on the fly,” he says. “It made me appreciate how much work happens behind the scenes to make these camps happen.”
 
Eric would like to pursue doctoral studies after he graduates from UNI and then teach at a community college.
 
“I probably wouldn’t be a math major if not for a few good professors at my community college,” he says. “Getting people to understand a beautiful idea and then come up with more of their own seems like a useful career.”
 
Eric’s advice for future STEM students is twofold. “Take some of the major’s core classes,” he says. “Find a professor to talk about the field you want to go into.”
 
He also feels students need to realize that they “aren’t locked into anything” and that “a rough semester doesn’t mean you can’t make it.”

Mir Ashfaquzzaman,  UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 09-06-16

On course, with an open mind

STEM Ambassador Courtney Massey challenges State Representative Bob Kressig to identify Iowa native mammal skulls at a STEM Festival.

When she was little, Courtney Massey loved to play with animals. She still does. Courtney likes to spend her free time with Mushu. Mushu is a rescue dog.
 
Love for animals inspired Courtney to go for biology and biochemistry when it came to declare her majors; she wanted to “learn more about animals and how they work.”
 
Courtney also wanted to study at a university where she would be “in classes of 20 people rather than classes of 200” so that she could get much more out of her classes, especially related to her majors.
 
The University of Northern Iowa was that — and much more.
 
“I have had the opportunity to study abroad twice, get involved in undergraduate research, be a leader in student organizations, and volunteer with many local groups,” Courtney says. “My UNI experience has been amazing so far.”
 
Her undergraduate coursework has been diverse and hands-on while her professors are all “passionate about what they teach and it clearly translates into the quality of the course.”
 
Courtney is currently doing research with Professor James Demastes.
 
The study is about “Chewing Lice on Pocket Gophers and their range expansion along a stretch of Rio Grande,” she says.
 
However, her favorite course, thus far, has been “Intro to Astro-Science.”
 
“It was a special lecture course that featured numerous guest speakers from NASA and covered everything from the Big Bang to current politics that NASA faces,” she recounts.
 
Courtney is a Student Fellow at the UNI Conservation Corps, currently working on a public education campaign across Iowa to discourage the use of pesticides.
 
“The campaign is in its early stages,” she says. “It is all about spreading awareness on the impact pesticides can have and dispelling the misconception that someone should be using pesticides to keep their lawn perfect.”
 
She is also a peer advisor at the UNI Study Abroad Center.
 
Moreover, Courtney, who plans to go into conservation or wildlife biology once she graduates from UNI, is a volunteer at Blackhawk Wildlife Rehabilitation.
 
“I primarily help care for the animals and assist with miscellaneous tasks around the property,” she says. “In my time there I have learned how to care for many different animals.”
 
Besides, Courtney is a UNI STEM Ambassador, which helped her connect with other STEM fields. “I have learned a lot about computer science and textiles thanks to my time working with fellow ambassadors,” she says.
 
STEM, she believes, offers many different paths to pursue. So, her advice for students interested in STEM is: “Keep an open mind.”
 
“Make sure you are giving yourself a chance to explore many different fields before you settle on a path,” she adds.

Mir Ashfaquzzaman, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 08-30-16

Summer STEM Camps – Have fun and adventure while build friendships and confidence on the UNI Campus

2016 UNI STEM Camp program Logo - many symbols of various tpes of STEM from botany to electical engineering.

Have you been to a UNI STEM Camp this summer? If the answer is no, you haven’t missed your chance to participate in a UNI STEM Camp quite yet!  We still have openings in several July camps! Mastering Multiplayers and Minecraft Mavens – For Girls are all about taking the power and transitioning from a game player to a game builder.  Middle Schoolers who love math or want to love math but are not quite ready for algebra should check out our half days camp - Opening Doors to STEM, a camp that combines mathematics, fun and growth mindset. Across campus in our Electrical Engineering Technology lab, the renewable energy is GOod campers will explore wind, solar and other energy topics and design efficient machines using Legos.  New this year – Beyond Frozen: Science, Math, & Art of Fractals campers will discover how finding patterns in nature can lead to STEM discoveries. Also new this year, Intermediate Robotics is designed as an advanced version of our popular Introduction to Robotics Camp. Campers will use additional program languages, take on new challenges with their robots, and explore robots at work in the world. 
A limited under of cameperships are available to assist campers from groups under-represented in STEM fields attend these camps. Spaces are filling fast – so register today! http://www.uni.edu/camps.  Learn about and apply for campership at: http://www.uni.edu/stemed/2016-epscor-campship-application
 
UNI's 2016 STEM Camps are funded in part through an Iowa EPSCoR NSF Grant.

Marcy Seavey, UNI STEM Coordinator
Posted: 06-22-16

A look into the past to foresee the future

Reading the rocks… Dr. Alexa Sedlacek  looks on as a student examines a Devonian limestone.

The Biogeochemical Evolution of the Atmosphere (BETA) Project, funded through a STEM grant from the Iowa Space Grant Consortium, is not just about the past and the present; it is ultimately about the future.
 
“We are in a period of rapid climate change today and we spend a lot of time thinking about what might happen in the future,” says Dr. Alexa Sedlacek, an Assistant Professor of Geology at the Department of Earth Science and one of the co-advisors of the BETA Project.
 
“To really understand and form a predictive model, we need to look at how the atmosphere has responded in the past and quantify some of the changes,” she adds. “This will actually help us make predictions for the future.”
 
“Dr. Joshua Sebree had the idea of doing an interdisciplinary project,” recalls Dr. Sedlacek. “He approached me because I do a lot of work with Earth’s history and have looked at climate events through earth’s history.”
 
They brainstormed about what points in Earth’s history would be the most interesting to look at,” Dr. Sedlacek recounts.
 
With Dr. Xinhua Shen, an atmospheric chemist, joining in, “it was sort of a nice arc to think about three different ways of approaching the study of Earth’s atmosphere.”
 
The brainstorming subsequently resulted in a grant proposal that the Iowa Space Grant Consortium approved, and the BETA Project was underway.
 
The three-year project has three components that examine Earth’s atmosphere in three different timeframes.
 
Dr. Sebree, an Assistant Professor of Astrochemistry and Astrobiology, leads the component that studies the atmosphere in the Archean period, about 4 to 2.5 billion years ago, which marked pre-life and very early life conditions on Earth.
 
Dr. Shen, an Assistant Professor of Meteorology/Air Quality, is in charge of the component that investigates how reduced nitrogen interacts with fog in northern Iowa, especially in the Cedar Valley region. The investigation is aimed at improving the current understanding of the biogeochemical cycle of nitrogen in the present-day atmosphere.
 
The component that Dr. Sedlacek leads looks into the atmospheric evolution in the Devonian period.
“In the Devonian, fully developed forest ecosystems showed up for the first time and had a major impact on the atmosphere,” she explains. “Photosynthesis brings carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stores it in tissues of plants and animals.”
 
“It is also in the Devonian when the atmosphere became, for the first time, much more modern and much more familiar in terms of what we experience today,” she adds.
 
These changes got imprinted in the rocks.
 
Iowa is the perfect place to do such research because Devonian limestones are found in abundance in the eastern part of the state.
 
“We look at the isotopic composition of these rocks for carbon and strontium,” Dr. Sedlacek says. “Those tell us how carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere.”
 
“You can actually look at these ratios to see how the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content is changing and how quickly it is changing,” she explains. “The chemistry of these rocks tells you how radiation of plants on lands changes the atmosphere and how quickly it happens.”
 
“The difference between the Devonian period and today is that the Devonian was a cooling period and today we are in a warming period,” she adds. “Either way, how do the earth systems go into and out of these periods of rapid climate change? You want to think about all the parameters of the system.”
 
“You can think of it in terms of maybe how people discuss history,” she says. “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. We have in the rock records the history of how atmosphere has changed over time.”
 
The focus on the Devonian has also made “it easier to include students in the research projects,” Dr. Sedlacek says. “It’s been interesting to see the students on field trips, see them experience being outside, getting their hands dirty.”
 
Field trips are exciting alright but can be tricky too.
 
“It is difficult out in the field; sometimes, you have to walk up and down a really steep slope that’s loose sediment,” she says. “There is a lot of teaching about, say, how to fall if you fall, make sure that you fall towards the slope and not away from it.”
 
“We have a couple of Earth Science majors who are involved in the project and have had more experience in field trips but, then, we have four Biology majors and one Science Teaching major who have never had to go out to quarries and collect rock samples,” she adds. “It’s fun watching students figure out how to get to a sample in the field when the environment is challenging.”
 
Being out in the field helps one to understand the scale of the earth and its system, which no amount of classroom activities can do, she says.
 
That’s one reason why Dr. Sedlacek advises middle and high school students to “get outside, look at the natural world and start asking questions.”
 
“When you go outside you get a much better feel for the scale on which these processes occur. That’s true for geology or any atmospheric study,” she says.
 
“You really have to start thinking on a much larger scale than we do in a classroom,” she adds. “For any interested student, just being outside and making observations in the natural world would be the best thing to do.”
 
Dr. Sedlacek also believes students should be more forthcoming about asking questions to experts.
 
“Students should be comfortable going to a university with what they have found. Usually, they will find that the faculty are willing to help,” she says. “Just call ahead and tell them that you have found a few things and that you would want to know more about them.”
 
“There are students in elementary, middle and high schools who have rock or fossil collections. They may not really know what they have collected. If they come to a department like ours we can sit down with them and tell them about what they have found,” she adds.
 
The Department of Earth Science at UNI does a lot of outreach “because children like fossils and rocks and these spark their curiosity,” says Dr. Sedlacek. “In the past two years, we have had people bring in ‘unknowns’ that they find.”
 
“Someone brought in a meteorite… somebody brought in a camel tooth, from a camel that lived in North America several million years ago,” she adds.
 
“Sometimes we get really interesting fossils. I think students should feel confident and know that it is a possibility.”


Posted: 04-25-16

Restoring the prairie “yard by yard,” year after year


Once upon a time, in not so distant a past, tallgrass prairie covered parts of 14 states in the Midwest, including about 85% of Iowa. Tall grasses, with stalks up to 10 feet high and roots up to 12 feet below the surface, covered much of the landscape, with wildflowers such as prairie violet, pale purple coneflower, false sunflower, and white prairie clover adding a medley of colors. There would be bison, elk, and deer grazing on the grass, which stimulated the growth of the grass and many other prairie plants.
 
Native Americans would set fires in early spring, late summer and fall. No, not to destroy the prairie, but to attract grazers and browsers to fresh growth, aid in hunting, and clear campsite areas, and crop planting sites. The fire actually helped sustain the prairie plants; otherwise, trees would shade out the grass and other fire-adaptive plants on the prairie. It also reduced the danger of wildfire.
 
The arrival of the European settlers changed everything. What had been a major feature of the landscape for 5,000 to 8,000 years was virtually decimated in about 150 years, between 1800 and 1930. Now, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, less than 0.1% of the original prairie remains in Iowa.
 
All is not lost, however. Not yet. There are silver linings in the cloud and they are getting brighter — slowly but surely — as more and more initiatives, both public and private, are undertaken to bring back native prairies “yard by yard,” as one journalist wrote a few years back.
 
The Tallgrass Prairie Center at UNI has been a model for such initiatives nationally and internationally for its relentless work on and advocacy for “progressive, ecological approaches utilizing native vegetation to provide environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits for the public good.”
 
The center began its journey in 1999, with its founder Professor Daryl Smith at the helm; it was called the Native Roadside Vegetation Center then.
 
“There was an unmet need in Iowa and the Midwest for a center that focused on tallgrass prairie activities and programs,” says Dr. Smith. “There were prairie related activities going on elsewhere in the state, but the activities at UNI focused specifically on tallgrass prairie. The presence of the center provided a tallgrass prairie resource and focal point for the state and upper Midwest.”
 
The center also brought under the same umbrella three programs that he had been involved in and were his responsibility.
 
“I had been involved with research and management involving prairie ecology and prairie restoration since 1972 and had oversight responsibility for two related programs, roadside vegetation management (started in 1988 to provide assistance to Iowa counties) and Natural Selections (Iowa Ecotype started in 1991),” Dr. Smith adds.
 
“UNI had become involved in initiating and coordinating many statewide prairie activities. I co-initiated the Iowa Prairie Heritage Week and provided public educational materials for it. The biennial Iowa Prairie Conference was initiated at UNI in the mid-1980s. I was coordinating these conferences and also hosted the North American Prairie Conference in 1990 (450 participants).”
 
In 2006, the center was renamed “to more accurately reflect its mission, programs, and activities.”
 
Its three flagship programs—Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM), Research and Restoration, and Natural Selections—continue to broaden their scope and coverage.
 
“Integrated roadside vegetation management is an ecological approach to right-of-way management,” says Kristine Nemec, the IRVM program manager at the center. “It includes judicious use of herbicides, spot mowing, prescribed burning, mechanical tree and brush removal, and the planting of native vegetation in the right-of-way.”
 
Since “IRVM is voluntary for counties,” increasing public awareness of “the benefits of having native plants in roadside ditches” has been key to “encouraging more counties to adopt IRVM practices,” Nemec points out.
 
“Over 25,000 acres of county roadsides have been seeded with native plant seed mixes in the last 25 years,” she adds. “Currently, 38 counties have roadside managers who implement IRVM.”
 
The Research and Restoration Program continues to provide better understanding of prairie reconstruction, restoration, and management through sustained research as well as development of application methods and tools.
 
The Iowa Prairie Seed Calculator, for example, has been developed to help create custom seed mixes, taking into consideration such things as seeding method, planting time, and planting site conditions (location within Iowa, soil moisture conditions and erosion potential).
 
The Natural Selection Program works with state, federal, private and commercial enterprises that collect, increase, certify, and market seed derived from remnant populations of native prairie species.
 
The Center has had a “positive impact on the number, size, and quality of prairie reconstruction throughout the tallgrass prairie region,” and will “continue to assist and support the hard-working managers of Iowa’s county roadsides, as well as rural and urban landowners and natural resource agencies,” says its director, Professor Laura Jackson.
 
“The first twenty years of the Center's existence has been about making people aware of the incredible beauty and diversity of tallgrass prairie at the time of European settlement, and how it was almost completely lost,” she says.
 
“The next twenty years will be increasingly about how essential tallgrass prairie is to the functioning of this ecosystem and a sustainable society, and we will begin to re-build the prairie ecosystem processes that have been lost through annual row-crop agriculture and urbanization,” she adds.
 
Dr. Jackson sees students playing a key role in prairie reconstruction.
 
“We employ UNI students from across campus, giving them hands-on learning opportunities, and collaborate with faculty in the UNI Biology Department as well as across the U.S,” she says. “We will train many students to serve UNI and the local community through informative videos and guides, a useful website for homeowners, and a restoration and management seminar series that brings together town and gown.”
 
She also expects the Center’s “national reputation in restoration ecology to attract students from across Iowa and the US to become a part of what we do.”
 
Such engagement of students “not only in scientific research but also in implementing what we know in the real world,” as Professor Jackson indicates, ultimately makes the silver lining in the clouds over the tallgrass prairie even brighter.

Mir Ashfaquzzaman, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 04-18-16

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