Arsenic and Old Rocks

It’s like feeding candy to…a rat? Tilting at wind turbines? Arsenic and old rocks?

A significantly large and curious group of Middlebury students gave new twists to old ideas during the 2010 Spring Student Symposium in Bicentennial Hall as they made their independent research projects understandable to a packed room of interested onlookers.

The fourth annual event, established in 2007 and co-chaired by Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research Pat Manley and Associate Dean of the College Karen Guttentag, has ballooned in interest since its early days.

“We’ve grown from 94 students in 2007 to more than 220 this year,” said Manley. “Conducting significant research and developing an original piece of creative work gives students the chance to put into practice what they have learned in their chosen fields of study.”

“The Symposium is a celebration of their process,” added Guttentag. “And it’s a great opportunity for faculty, staff and students to gather and appreciate the fruits of Middlebury’s core mission for creativity and innovation in and out of the classroom.”

This year’s event opened with keynote speaker and 2007 graduate Gruia Badescu, a veritable poster child for why undergraduate research matters. Badescu was a three-year research assistant for Professor of Geography Guntram Herb, which led to his thesis on the reconstruction of cities in post-war Germany. After graduation he joined the National Geographic Society and has continued his research in urban design and social science. Most recently he’s been involved in the worldwide rehabilitation of historic city centers.

The all-day symposium consists of 15-minute oral presentations and hour-long poster sessions, with artistic performances interspersed throughout the day. Topics ranged from analyses of Shakespearean texts, the effect of glucose on rat memory and the European Union to the slow-food movement, Bosnian fortunetellers and the damaging presence of arsenic in glacial drifts. Students spoke casually with passersby in the Great Hall during poster sessions or more formally with multimedia accompaniment during the standing-room-only presentations. Various items were on display in the Great Hall, including a fully functioning and built-to-scale wind turbine and an historical restoration of an Addison County trapping boat. The singing group Mountain Ayres serenaded the morning crowds from above, echoing harmonies throughout the 5-story atrium, and a lone violinist punctuated the end of a session in the afternoon.

The overall experience was awe-inspiring, if not for the scale of work it encompassed then undoubtedly for the passion with which these students delivered. Creativity and innovation indeed.

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