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Summer Research Provides Hands-On Learning

Over the summer, some Principia College students partnered with faculty and dug deeper into research projects. The projects stemmed from a range of disciplines, including theater, computer science, engineering, and biology. They gave students opportunities for hands-on research and field work—an invaluable experience in understanding what further study or a career might look like after college. Students developed a play, created designs in virtual reality, engineered a robot, and tested methods of combatting an invasive plant species.

Bringing History to Life

American history came to life on stage in We.The.People., a new play written and directed by Dr. Jeffrey C. Steele. Audience members explored what it means to be an American citizen by interacting with larger-than-life legends from United States history. The Theatre Department partnered with Bankside Repertory Theatre to present the world premiere of We.The.People. at Principia College’s Davis Black Box Theatre. As part of the summer research project initiative, students were involved in all aspects of the production—acting, costume design, stage management, and more—during the three-week intensive experience.

Theatre major and junior Josh Baker aims to work as a voice actor after college and appreciates every opportunity to act so he can sharpen his craft, including his summer creative assistantship for We.The.People. “It was eye opening to be a part of the creative process, specifically since Dr. Steele encouraged us to give feedback on his script and change things when needed.” 

The play, presented during Summer Session at the college, sold out on closing night. “They really nailed it that night and there was a very palpable sense that our ‘proof of concept’ about this play was a success,” Dr. Steele commented.

Turning 2D Graphics into 3D Virtual Reality

Junior Jamie Bland is a music major and virtual reality (VR) enthusiast. Though he has always been interested in developing for VR, he wasn’t sure how to get started until an opportunity arose to work on a VR-focused summer research project with Dr. Clint Staley, professor of computer science. The project involved demonstrating mathematics and physics principles in a three-dimensional setting. In Jamie’s final simulation, users could see the results of gravitational kinematics design using a VR headset.

With only one computer science class under his belt, Jamie rose to the challenge and learned how to write code and translate two-dimensional graphics into three-dimensional, VR experiences. Jamie and Dr. Staley now have a working product wherein users can test the velocity needed for a ball shot out of a cannon to hit a target and bounce off-screen. “Jamie has done a really professional job,” says Dr. Staley, noting that the work accomplished is “due to Jamie’s talent and care for good craftsmanship—building software that both works and is well-designed.” Physics professor Jonathan Langton hopes to test the program, which can flip between detailed schematics and the VR lab, in an introductory physics class this fall.

Jamie, who worked on the project from his home in Hampshire, England, developed new skills including learning JavaScript, a computer coding language. He now intends to double major in music and computer science, while continuing to explore VR-related careers. He was always passionate about VR but didn’t have the opportunity to explore how it is created until this summer. “This summer's given me the understanding of a whole new area,” says Jamie. “It's been incredible.”

Engineering and Programming a Robot

Donbosco Ngeso, a sophomore engineering major, was part of the mechanics team, along with Chris Rice and Lawrence Wontumi, working under Dr. Marie Farson to design a robot to combat invasive honeysuckle. Using a previous robot as a starting point, they designed a new robot that can navigate rough terrain and distribute herbicide.

After a process of analysis, design, and evaluation, the team built a robot shaped like a small tank, giving the robot maximum maneuverability on varied terrain with room for all of the necessary robotic components. The team completed the design and fabrication of the robot, as well as its wiring and programming. They also used the C++ computer language for embedded-systems programming to develop the robot’s driving capabilities. Though the robot, nicknamed the “Honeybot,” is still moved manually via a remote controller, it is also an operational prototype with developing autonomous capabilities.

Throughout the project, Donbosco appreciated not only the opportunity to work as a team to create a product, but also the opportunity for hands-on engineering experience. “I think we have to appreciate that by having the project, we are able to have students be hands-on and see how theory is applied,” says Donbosco. “The problem-solving ability you learn in mathematics and science becomes more real when you have an [actual] problem you need to solve.”

The whole process has solidified his interest in engineering both at Principia and beyond. “After the summer,” says Donbosco, “I got into engineering full throttle. I just made up my mind—this is what I’m going to do.” 

Combatting an Invasive Plant Species

Over in the biology department, sophomores Fiona Lingk and Jay Clifford worked with Professor John Lovseth to find an effective method for treating bush honeysuckle, an invasive species pervasive on Principia’s grounds. The current method of cutting down, uprooting, or burning the plant is costly and labor-intensive. Partnering with the engineering department on the creation of “Honeybot,”—the autonomous robot that can distribute herbicide—would minimize the cost and labor required for bush honeysuckle management.

Fiona and Jay developed a prototype for a spraying device that could attach to the robot. They tested the effectiveness of various concentrations of the herbicide on test sites, balancing effectiveness with environmental impact. Dr. Lovseth notes that there isn’t much literature on herbicides and the concentration required to treat invasive plants like bush honeysuckle, so the team intends to submit their research to a scientific journal.

“It was a good insight into fieldwork,” says Fiona about the summer project. “Seeing the progress over time was very exciting.” Both Jay and Fiona intend to pursue research careers after college and note that the project was helpful in developing relevant skills. They also both obtained an official certification in herbicide application from the State of Illinois in order to perform their research duties.

In general, the team found that a higher concentration of herbicide led to higher mortality rates, but no level tested achieved a mortality rate over 80 percent. They will continue to collect data on the testing sites over the coming months. Dr. Lovseth is excited about all that was accomplished over the summer. “Seeing Fiona and Jay work and seeing all the effort and dedication they put into this project—I'm really proud of the results,” he says, “and proud of the knowledge we gained and how we can apply it in the future.”