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SJR Column – UIS Perspectives, April 2013

Chancellor Susan J. Koch
Sunday, April 14, 2013

Educating students, of course, lies at the heart of our work at the world-class University of Illinois. Creating new knowledge and putting that knowledge to work is also central to our mission and the UI has been on the cutting edge of discovery since 1867 when the Urbana-Champaign campus was founded. In fact, research and creative activity play an essential role on all three campuses of the University of Illinois; faculty at UIUC, UIC and UIS are not only generating new knowledge of great value to our state and to society, but also providing students with valuable opportunities to enrich their educational experiences.

Providing an abundance of opportunities for students to collaborate with faculty is a particularly strong feature of the UIS student experience and the results of these opportunities were on prominent display on the Springfield campus just a few days ago at the StARS Symposium. StARS stands for Student Arts and Research Symposium and this annual event offers a rich array of presentations and performances by UIS students, each of whom has collaborated throughout the year with a faculty mentor to complete an individual research or creative project.

A glance at this year’s Symposium program provides a preview of nearly 70 projects, starting with an intriguing program cover photo by art student Tyler Phibbs, whose mentor for his photography project was UIS art professor Dave Kube. As I peruse the program, I am intrigued by project titles like: “War Widows and Black Bombazine” (a History project by student Laura Weiss), “Small Mammal Population Monitoring in the Tallgrass Prairie” (a study conducted at our Emiquon research facility on the Illinois River by Biology students JoAnn Morgando and Kyle Peecher), and “Enhancing Bacterial Denitrification Rates By Using Zero Valent Iron Nanoparticles (nZVI)” (work done by a team of Chemistry students mentored by professor Keenan Dungey). That last title, by the way, may sound pretty complicated but the project has to do with agricultural soils and results may have important implications for Illinois farmers in the future.

UIS music students also contributed to the Symposium, performing in a variety of musical genres and ensembles. Keynote speakers Ryan Swing, a researcher who is a member of the NASA Curiosity Team currently exploring the surface of Mars, and Mary Jo Bang, the author of six books of poetry and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, were also on the program contributing to the intellectual dialogue.

According to the U.S. Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), research and creative projects like those showcased at the UIS StARS Symposium develop critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and intellectual independence and promote an innovation-oriented culture on the university campus. Dr. Carrie Switzer, a UIS professor who helped plan this year’s symposium, adds: “I think the value for students who participate in the research or creative works process is in learning the tools of their trade; experiencing first hand what knowledge and skills are needed to be successful in their given disciplines.”

UIS professor Michael Lemke, a biologist who has mentored many students, says: “What the research project offers a student is the chance to work on a “hand-crafted” topic, almost like a course written for that individual or group of individuals (if a group topic). A research project represents one of the highest levels of intellectual achievement and an indispensable part of an advanced education – accurate interpretation of observation put in perspective through the findings of others.”

When it comes to the experience of discovery at UIS, it may be that students describe it best. Dyllan Tiburzi, a pre-med Junior from Benld, Illinois who is president of the UIS Chemistry Club, had this to say about his chemistry research: “The main value for me in doing this project [an application of green chemistry techniques] is that it represents time, patience, exploration, creativity, diligence, and a part of myself. Once one sees things that are potentially being seen for the first time by anyone, he/she yearns for more and wants to delve further into the newly found areas. I would say that this project has been one of the most important parts of my educational experience here at UIS.”