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Skidmore College
Dean of the Faculty/Vice President for Academic Affairs

Q&A: Summer learning opportunities flourish

HoffmanAs associate dean of the faculty from 2006 to 2008, Mark Hofmann took a special interest in growing the science and mathematics curriculum, including directing Skidmore’s Summer Faculty/Student Research Program. This is his third year at the helm of the program, which gives students a unique opportunity to collaborate with faculty on original research. 

This summer, there are 51 students and 34 faculty members working on 39 different projects in the Summer Faculty/Student Research Program. This is a dramatic increase in the size of the program, which had 20 students in 2005, and just eight in 2000. 

Q: How do students benefit from the summer collaborative research program?

A: The Summer Faculty/Student Research Program gives students a singular opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty member. Students learn in a hands-on way what research in their discipline is all about. They work 40-plus hours per week and are totally immersed in their research endeavor. The benefits are both immediate and long-term. 

What is most enjoyable to watch is the growth in student confidence and ability as the summer progresses, and to observe their high level of engagement. It really is remarkable to witness students share with peers—across disparate disciplines—their experiences and challenges, often realizing that their roadblocks and rewards are very similar. 

Students often cite their research experiences at Skidmore as fundamental in terms of what their ultimate career plans are. At the winter trustees meeting, several students said the program was one of the most rewarding experiences in their four years. Long-term, these projects help students gain admission to graduate schools and research careers. Returning graduates consistently tell us that their hands-on research work at Skidmore gave them an advantage over other graduate school students who did not have the same opportunity. Not infrequently, these other students graduated from large research-oriented universities. 

Q: This summer, there are 51 students and 34 faculty members working on 39 different projects in the Summer Faculty/Student Research Program. This is a dramatic increase in the size of the program, which had 20 students in 2005 and just eight in 2000. To what do you attribute this growth?

A: Faculty and student demand for summer research always exceeds our capacity to support research teams. Fortunately, we have significantly increased internal and external funding. 2008 was the first year of the Schupf Scholars Program, which supports four laboratory- and field-based research teams in the sciences, with a particular emphasis on increasing the number of women in science in fields in which there has historically been low representation. We have been helped out significantly by support from Student Opportunity Funds, administered by the Office of Academic Advising, and we were able to restructure on-campus costs for the program. Examples of external support include the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, which supports the Water Resources Initiative projects, and Mellon Foundation funds, which support the Scribner-Mellon Scholars. Scribner-Mellon Scholars are students who have just completed their first year at Skidmore and are given the opportunity to do research as rising sophomores. 

As funding has increased, faculty and student demand has increased proportionately. So, although we are now supporting a record number of teams the demand is there to grow the program even more. Our greatest challenge as we move forward will not only be to increase the funding to match the increasing level of interest in the program but to be able to find funding to continue to support this program at the level we have done for the past several years. External grants supporting the Water Resources Initiative and the Scribner- Mellon Programs are ending, and hence, in order to support the program at the same level in the future we will need to find additional resources. 

Q: This summer 70 percent or so of the projects are math-science related. Does that surprise you?

A: Yes and no. National conversations in the sciences clearly suggest that faculty-student collaboration is the new paradigm for both pedagogy and research, particularly at high-quality undergraduate institutions. The science departments at Skidmore for quite some time have embraced this model. Therefore, it is not surprising that we have a large number of projects in science and mathematics. 

Ronald Dotterer, chair of the board of governors of the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research and professor of English at Salisbury University,  has stated that undergraduate research is “the pedagogy for the 21st century” but “humanities departments have been the slowest to participate.” So what has actually been surprising and encouraging over the last several years is the large number of projects that we have in other disciplines, such as English, French, music and theater. 

Q: Looking at this year’s lineup of projects, what excites you? 

A: What strikes me is the broad range of disciplines that are involved, from biology to management and business, psychology to government and physics, to dance. Being involved, throughout the summer, in the conversations that are generated between faculty and students across this diverse set of disciplines is what makes this program particularly exciting. 

At this early juncture, it is difficult to determine which projects, ultimately, I will find as my favorites. For instance last year two of the final presentations that I most enjoyed were Determination of Optimum Growth Conditions for Seven Basidiomycete Fungal Species on Various Combinations of Agricultural Waste Products for Green Insulation, a project by Dawn Harfmann ’10 and Sue Van Hook, senior teaching associate in biology, and Development of Interactive Tutorial Digital Audio Synthesis Modules for the World-wide-web, a project by Bryan Nielsen ’09 and Tony Holland, associate professor of music. The biology team researched how to grow fungi on agricultural waste to create insulation for buildings. The music team produced an application to create music using Frequency Modulation Synthesis.

In any event, my favorites will not be everybody else’s. The program culminates this summer with a two-day conference, Aug. 7-8, at which students present the results of their work. I invite all interested parties to come and determine which projects they find the most stimulating. 

Q: Where does all this research lead, in terms of, for example, published articles in peer-reviewed or academic journals?

A: It is always rewarding to see a tangible outcome from the program in the form of national recognition or a published result. Some highlights over the last several years have been a student-and-faculty published book, The Architect of Necessity–Skidmore’s First Home in Downtown Saratoga; research on the effects of a drug on the sexual motivation of rats that was featured in an article in Scientific American; and a project which garnered the student partner a national award for excellence in undergraduate research at the American Physiology Society’s Experimental Biology Conference. It should be noted that in the sciences alone, from 2005–2008, there were 58 papers published that were co-authored by Skidmore students and faculty. Many, although not all, of these papers involved research done in the Summer Faculty/Student Research Program. While these specific projects are an external validation of quality of the program, it is perhaps more important that many participating students and faculty cite the program as one of their most rewarding Skidmore experiences.~Interview conducted by Peter MacDonald, Office of Communications

Posted On: 6/18/2009