STEM Beat

The Sweet Spot


Dr. Kenneth Elgersma, REAP mentor, & Anissa Forero, REAP apprentice.The University of Northern Iowa is unlike other higher education institutions.  It is a small enough school that professors can truly get to know students and help them in their coursework and careers.  Yet, it is large enough to be able to provide opportunities such as community engagement, internships, and involving undergraduate students with research on campus.  “UNI is in the sweet spot,” says Biology professor Dr. Kenneth Elgersma.  He continues, “Resources are available to do top-notch research and students have the opportunities to get research experience.  UNI does this really well.” 

Undergraduate research is valuable to employers.  Students are able to develop their skills of logical thinking and problem solving.  “This is one of the reasons that I do this.  It is valuable to the students and gets them ready for the next step in their careers,” Dr. Elgersma shares.  Undergraduate research is also essential to continue on to a masters program in most sciences.

Knowing how valuable opportunities like this are, the United States Army Education and Outreach Office in collaboration with UNI STEM brought the STEM REAP (Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Program) to UNI in 2017.  This program focuses on providing opportunities to talented but traditionally underrepresented high school students.  The students obtain research experience, receive training, and encouragement to obtain a higher education degree in a STEM field. 

Anissa Forero presenting REAP cattail research.Dr. Elgersma was a faculty mentor in the UNI REAP program in the summer of 2017.  Anissa Forero from Cedar Falls High School was selected and given the opportunity to work with Dr. Elgersma on his current research.  Anissa’s tasks involved extracting DNA from native and invasive species of cattails.  She then amplified the DNA in a process called polymerase chain reaction.  Once she had enough DNA, she was able to analyze it.  The majority of the cattails that we see in Iowa’s wetlands, ditches, and other waterways are invasive species.  The invasive cattails are similar in appearance to the native cattails.  It is becoming even more challenging to identify these as the cattails create new hybrids.  Analyzing DNA is the only definitive way to tell some cattails apart.  Once this method is perfected, it may provide an additional tool to help manage wetlands.  Anissa’s work contributed to solving this challenge.

The largest challenge of the REAP program is time.  Many scientific research projects take years to finish, but the REAP program is only eight weeks; not long enough to take a project from start to finish.  However, students are able to complete a small study that contributes to a larger project.  This is what Dr. Elgersma has done as a mentor.  He has found ways to plug students into one if his existing research projects.  This particular project is building off of Dr. Elgersma’s post-doc research.  Anissa’s cattail DNA research is part of understanding if and how excess nitrogen in Iowa is affecting and possibly promoting the non-native cattail invasion. Students, like Anissa, may not get to see the beginning or the end of the big project, but they will have contributed a supporting study and will be able to see how it fits into the project as a whole. 

Cattail ResearchUNI STEM is currently taking applications for the summer 2019 REAP-STEM program.  These positions are highly competitive and include a stipend for the student.  For more information, visit the UNI STEM website:  https://stemed.uni.edu/k12/REAP-STEM

Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 12-11-18

Beyond Research, Action


Emerging Innovation AwardThe University of Northern Iowa Conservation Corps is an initiative funded through a grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust.  The Corps’ purpose is to engage UNI students, faculty and staff alongside members of the community to examine some of the largest environmental challenges we face.  Eric Giddens, Energy Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Energy and Environmental Education (CEEE) at UNI is leading this three-year project. 

There are four different areas in which the Conservation Corps works, including the Community Energy and Climate Action Program.  This program works with communities to develop personalized climate action plans.  Making changes at the state or federal level are important, but are sometimes out of the reach of the general public.  Impacting actions people take in their home and the services a community provides are a way to start positive change for our environment.  The UNI Conservation Corps works with local governments to create a set of strategies that they will implement as their budgets and time allow.  They also estimate the measurable impacts on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

StudentPresentingtoCityThe Community Energy and Climate Action Program is unique because of the involvement of UNI faculty and students.  It provides students with real-world experience, directly serving Iowa’s communities.  Some students work directly within the program as student fellows.  Other students are exposed to the program through their coursework.  The program is built into some courses, such as Dr. Alex Oberle’s Regional Analysis and Planning course in the Geography Department.  In Oberle’s course, students have completed greenhouse gas inventories for communities, provided possible reduction strategies, and calculated emissions reduction potentials for each  strategy.  These communities can then choose to investigate further and select which strategies to implement.

Changing the ways communities plan future development is a way to reduce emissions.  Master plans with roundabouts, bike trails, and more accessible public transportation are key to reducing the dependency on personal travel and the impacts that vehicles have.  Roundabouts lessen the amount of idle time on the road which reduces fuel use.  Bike trails encourage commuting by providing a safer way for bikers to commute as well as provide additional recreational opportunities.  Better and more accessible public transportation systems encourage more use, therefore reducing the number of vehicles on the road.  All of these energy reductions start with community planning. 

At the community level, collectively, residents can make a huge impact.  The preferable way is to simply reduce consumption.  Currently, our population has an unsustainable consumption level of energy, food, and products.  A cultural shift in how people live can make a significant difference.  Residents can start by utilizing efficient technologies and renewable sources of energy.  

CapstoneStudentIn the spring of 2018, the UNI Conservation Corps won the Iowa Campus Compact (IACC) Emerging Innovation Award for the Community Energy & Climate Action Program.  The criteria for this award is a recent project making unique and innovative contributions.  Awardees must also demonstrate strong future potential.

The IACC is a statewide association of college and university presidents providing leadership for the civic mission of higher education.  The goals of the IACC are to encourage students to become engaged citizens, develop community partnerships resulting in student learning, community impact, and institutional success.  IACC awards individuals and groups for engaging communities and demonstrating leadership, service, and innovative ideas on college campuses across Iowa.  The UNI Conservation Corps fit this perfectly.

CapstonePresentationFor the past three years, the Corps has been able to investigate the feasibility and effectiveness of the Community Energy and Climate Action program.  It has also hosted several invited speakers which has set the stage for the creation of the Aldo Leopold Distinguished Lecture Series, which will continue after the Roy J. Carver Trust grant has ended.  Some professors have made UNI Conservation Corps projects a permanent part of their course curriculums.  It is the hope of the UNI Conservation Corps that work in all four areas will be self-sustaining while continuing to assist governments, involve students and educate the public. 

UNI Conservation Corps Current Work

 

 

Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 12-06-18

Kidd at Heart


Vintage Circuit BoardMath, chemistry, physics, and engineering mixed with logic and rational thought are the perfect combination for a rewarding career.  This is what Dr. Tim Kidd of the University of Northern Iowa Physics Department looks forward to everyday.  He recalls, as a 10-year-old, being asked what do you want to be when you grow up and answering “I want to be a mad scientist.” He knew he wanted to have cool and crazy toys and be able to “make stuff.”  Mission accomplished. 

3D Printed ChocolateDr. Kidd supervises three physics labs.  Within these labs he conducts research and experiments with the assistance of UNI undergraduate students.  He encourages the students to play with the resources and tools in the labs.  He estimates that the labs are worth about two million dollars, which he says is “Amazing.  It is beautiful to have that many things [equipment and tools] available.”  The undergraduates who assist with his research are not only physics majors but include every science, math, and even some business majors.  Dr. Kidd says “If you are interested in science and an undergraduate at UNI, look into working with us because we have a lot of fun toys.  As long as you are curious and can work independently, we want you.”

Dr. Kidd’s favorite thing about working with undergraduates is the moment when they realize that they may know more about an experiment than he does.  At first, students see questions about experiments as if they are test questions.  They believe he already knows the outcome.  Sometimes this is the case, but Dr. he reminds the student that he did not do the experiment himself and does not know what was observed until the student shares what happened in the experiment. 

Dr. Kidd tells the students, “Don’t let me pollute your findings.  My intuition could be totally wrong.  If you are wrong, who cares?  It doesn’t matter.  What did you learn?”  After students get over the fear of being wrong, then they begin to build confidence, do their own analysis, form ideas, and start to have fun with the learning process.  The students also become more accepting of an idea being questioned and no longer take it personally, but learn from it and move on.

Learning how to fail is something that Dr. Kidd truly believes students need today.  As a professor, he sometimes sees a lack of willingness to try because of the fear of failure.  Students are afraid to write their own ideas down on paper because they are afraid of the judgement.  He encourages students to get hurt, work it out, recover from emotional trauma because he says, “If they never fail, how will they know what they are good at?  Just do something.  What is the worst that can happen?  You break something.”  Dr. Kidd says that his own past failures and struggles helped him find out what he truly enjoys, what he is good at, and what he is not good at. 

NanoCelluloseNano Cellulose MagnifiedOne of Dr. Kidd’s areas of research is nanoscience.  Nanoscience is the study and control or manipulation of very small things such as atoms and molecules.  In one case, Dr. Kidd and his student assistants broke down cellular fibers using an ultra-sonic probe.  Each molecule of cellulose then separates and gets surrounded by water.  After it is freeze dried, the material looks like cotton candy as it is approximately 99.98% air.  There is not much material in relation to surface area.  It is so [not dense] that it is not immediately felt when touched. 

Similar research with magnets is also taking place in one of his three labs.  Using these magnets that are mostly air (fluffy and ultra-light),  Dr. Kidd and his research assistants are investigating what can be done with a magnet that is not very powerful but weighs less than a gram. 

Layering TechnologyMaking composite materials and layering different materials are another project undergraduates are researching in Dr. Kidd’s lab.  They take layers of non-magnetic materials (such as semi-conductors or various metals) and sandwiching magnetic ions in between the layers.  This layering allows the researchers to control the magnetic strength and interactions of the material.  They do this by changing which elements or compounds are used, and the depth of each layer. 

As an undergraduate, Dr. Kidd majored in Engineering Physics at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.  At the time he did not know what field of engineering he wanted to pursue, so he took courses that were the basis of all engineering disciplines, physics being one of these.  He explored other engineering areas, talked to friends coming back from internships and even met with professionals.  Dr. Kidd felt that the majority of the engineers and his engineering classmates with whom he spoke were accomplishing similar tasks in process control and systems improvements.  He did not want to do these aspects of engineering for his career.  Again, he wanted to create objects using various tools.  One of the primary building blocks of engineering is physics and he was successful in these courses.  The result was Dr. Kidd obtaining a Ph.D in physics.  He then spent two years at Brookhaven National Laboratory conducting postdoctoral research studying nanomaterials and high temperature superconductors.  High temperature superconductors are materials that have little to no electrical resistance at extremely high temperatures.

As a graduate student, Dr. Kidd became a teacher’s assistant (TA) for a class and found that he was pretty good at it.  He liked the small group communication and helping students understand the material.  His experience led him to want to have a career that blended teaching with research.  This idea is what brought him to UNI.

Three Chambered OvenThis is Dr. Kidd’s 12th year at UNI.  He has supervised over 70 undergraduate students and a handful of graduate students.  Working with these students is what he believes a big component of his job should be.  “Doing real research and having students involved in it is what makes UNI stand out,” he says.

Dr. Kidd was recently awarded an Iowa Space Grant Consortium Curriculum Redesign Grant.  This grant will allow Dr. Kidd to develop a self-contained laboratory activity manual for teaching electronics at different levels from high school to graduate level.  The instruction is goal oriented and different than how many of us have been taught — theory then practice.  The students start by making something, such as a robot, then they work backwards to understand the what, how, and why.  This way the student has motivation to learn because he will know that he will be making a cool robot.  If a student makes or simulates an actual thing, learn about the individual components that goes into it, then a better understanding of the subject matter can be obtained and students are more likely to remember key concepts and processes.  The experiments start simple in the basic classes and build in the next class questioning why, possibly building a power supply, sensor, etc. themselves.  When taught to upperclassmen, the theories behind each build are discussed.

Dr. Kidd encourages students to get out of their comfort zone, try new things and find what you are good at.  “It is ok if you are not good at something.  Don’t make that your career.  Make it your hobby if you really like it.  There are a lot of things that you can be awesome at,” he says.  Find out what you enjoy, pursue it, and then play.

 

Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 11-13-18

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