published April 28, 2010

The Synergy of SENCER and NCUR

The National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) provide students a unique opportunity to present their research at a national venue where numerous disciplines are present and this is especially valuable for research work that probes civic issues. The student presenters gain from the audiences with multiple perspectives voicing questions on the research and conclusions which is presented either in the oral or poster sessions. Similar to the tenets of the SENCER project, the students begin to recognize the limitations and strengths of their disciplinary perspective to address civic issues. NCUR 2010 was coordinated by Garon Smith, professor of chemistry for the University of Montana and SENCER Leadership Fellow.

David Burns, PI of the SENCER project, made a direct connection to the student audience in his plenary address, as he described the multi-disciplinary trouble of the first SENCER course on HIV/AIDS and these well educated students observed the value of multiple perspectives to begin to solve the challenges of the world that they are inheriting.

David's plenary recounted that the SENCER project was born out of teaching students through civic issues where student interest in the topic made the teaching of science more effective. David noted the first course on HIV/AIDS yielded an oversubscribed course educating students on a human health issue that initially was fear as a potential modern day plague. This plenary was complementary to Steven Running's plenary on Global Climate Change, which called to action all listeners. Professor Running, a lead chapter author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, informed the students that their brilliance and enthusiasm is needed to change our culture from one dependent on fossil fuel consumption. He noted that the ingenuity and exuberance of the students learning through their pursuit of solutions to a research project would be needed to address global climate change and he asked for their earnest efforts. During the second plenary session, the well known Native American flute player, R. Carlos Nakai performed. The final plenary was given by Henrittee Lowisch, a journalist extraordinaire who queried the audience how they will ask important questions that don't have easy answers.

One student presentation that epitomized some of the essence of the plenary dialogues was a study of whether fish from Flathead Lake were safe to eat. Katie McDonald of Salish Kootenai College identified herself as an American Indian student from a Tribal College. She noted the tribe has an explicit right to a portion of the fish taken from the lake and that there is a mercury contamination issue with the predatory fish in the lake. The issue is compounded since the consumption of fish is especially high for women and children via the fish harvested through fishing derbies, where the collected fish supply the tribal food pantries with fish.

Ms. McDonald presented numerical data on the mercury content in the fish correlated to the fish length and the average length of the fish harvested through the derbies. In her conclusions, the intake of mercury from the harvested fish was predicted to yield a detrimental health effect. The research was presented to the tribal council and has lead to a policy change in the selection of fishing derby fish sent to the tribal food pantries. Ms. McDonald's research empowered a community to make decisions which were more protective of human health. She has had a rich educational research experience that supported her community's need to know the answer to a complex question that blended of biology, toxicology, and public policy. Many other current research projects could yield SENCER educational projects and the SENCER curriculum could easily be developed to yield undergraduate research projects in context to benefit our society and world.

Students and faculty from many SENCERized campuses were in attendance, including Beloit College, University of North Carolina at Asheville, Kapi'olani Community College, Rutgers University, Saint Mary's College, and Saint Vincent College. Students from Rutgers University and the University of North Carolina at Asheville later shared their projects at the Washington Symposium and Capitol Hill Poster Session. More information on these projects will be featured in the next eNews.

- Steven Bachofer, SCI-West Co-Director

Photograph by Steven Bachofer