Research projects highlight student potential, possibilities

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PITTSFIELD — Each semester, thousands of students will inevitably pour their hours, energy and knowledge into a significant research project, only to have its reach stop at a professor's desk, or perhaps a classroom wall.

On Friday night, Berkshire Community College helped bring 16 of its top projects and 18 student presenters into public light by staging its first-ever multidisciplinary Undergraduate Scholars Conference.

Despite near single-digit temperatures, dozens of staff and faculty, friends, community and family members turned out to the event, catered by culinary students-presenters, Eva Dailey, Emma Barile and Sam Schlegel. The guests and presenters filled the college's Koussevitzky Arts Center with lively discussions and educational energy.

Jeremy LaCrosse, a statistician for BCC's Office of Institutional Effectiveness, and assistant English professor, Matthew M ller, co-organized the event with a conference committee, with a vision of raising the bar for student work and the public's perception of academic rigor at a community college.

"The faculty nominated students they think are doing work that is above and beyond what's expected," said M ller. "This is a chance to recognize students doing exceptional work and celebrate that, and also show that there's an environment on campus that fosters excellence."

Nine students offered 20-minute presentations in the room K-111 small theater, defending research related to their projects, while nine others shared their work via posters and conversations in the Koussevitzky Lobby. For most of the students, it was their first time presenting their work on a public scale.

"We wanted to create a safe and open environment where academic work could be done and praised," said LaCrosse. He was inspired to approach the administration and faculty about conducting a conference after recalling his own experience once presenting at a research conference.

"It was both a terrifying and fantastic experience for me," he said,"and also encouraging."

Unsure of how the faculty would respond to the request for more time to support the conference and its students, LaCrosse said, "People were so enthusiastic to participate, and that may be because people are looking for something to celebrate right now. So why not our own students?"

Allison Kahn, nominated by M ller, presented a poster on "Early American Women & Their Fight for Equality," delving into early women's rights documents and speeches. "I've always been interested by the road to women's rights, something that's influenced societal change," she said.

"I've done so many projects where the research I've done is sitting in a notebook to this day. You never really get to share it with other people," said Kahn, noting that knowing she had to be a presenter "definitely" broadened the scope of her efforts.

Leigha Chaffee said the invitation to participate motivated her to better her poster and presentation skills, which her ecology professor, Tim Flanagan, attested to.

"By learning the skills here, she now transferring it to the next challenge. We now have students out there who are learning and doing that and getting jobs with that," Flanagan said.

Chaffee said the atmosphere of the conference and the chance to research her interest, "Elephants: Still in Crisis," she felt "energized."

Alexander Griffith agreed, and said he never thought his astronomy project would go beyond finals. Lo and behold, it's now led to a real-world effort known as "The AstroShire County Project," which can be seen at http://astroshire.blogspot.com.

The project, like most good ones, started with an interesting prompt: "Imagine if our entire solar system could be set to scale within Berkshire County."

Griffith's set out to do just that, using software like Google Maps and the Solar System Scope, to calculate the location from which each planet would orbit the "sun" in the "Greylock System" to a hundredth of a mile. The sun, by the way, is the glowing orb atop the Veterans War Memorial Tower atop Mount Greylock.

"I really like this privilege to be at a college that encourages this," Griffith said.

BCC alumna, Laura Saldarini, was selected to serve as the keynote speaker for the inaugural Undergraduate Scholars Conference because she lives in the same spirit.

Returning to college in her 40s, she entered the environmental science program at BCC in 2005, and became the valedictorian of her graduating class in 2008. In 2017, she will begin her master's program with Project Dragonfly and Miami Ohio University in field biology.

By sharing her experiences at the conference, Saldarini said, "I want to help [students] to recognize in themselves their potential to do scholarly work and how things they don't realize can take you to scholarly pursuits.

"I never started out to be a scholar," she said. "I think sometimes you find what you love and realize that the interest is never-ending, so you stick with it ... You need to know there are so many possibilities."


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