Science education is a hot topic these days. People are more aware of how their health is influenced by their environment. In a nation at peace and with serious crime on the decline, interest is growing in
making this a better world. Our view of the world — as digested and presented on television — relies heavily on science, from the popularity of medical shows like "E.R." to the numerous "investigatory" shows that explore topics such as cloning, pollution, psychological profiling, hospital disasters and medical miracles.
Exciting scientific developments, the thrill of genetic engineering or finding cures for cancer account for a growth of more than 40 percent in biology majors in the last decade. Computers have made much of this boom in science possible, particularly the use of the Internet to collaborate on projects. St. Thomas numbers re-flect this with 400 biology majors and 239 quantitative methods/ computer science majors in fall 2000.
And science education is booming at St. Thomas.
St. Thomas had 531 math and science majors in 1994-95. In fall 2000, that number has grown to 900. Twin buildings of the Frey Science and Engineering Center — O’Shaugh-nessy Science Hall (which houses geology, engineering, mathematics and quantitative methods-computer science) and Owens Science Hall (home to biology, chemistry, physics, the 3M Auditorium and a 2,800 square-foot greenhouse) — were dedicated in fall 1997. The center consistently is recognized as one of the most advanced science-education facilities in the Midwest.
That new space is being put to good use.
The center houses 61 full-time and 39 part-time faculty who have access to 69 laboratories, including 23 research and 46 instructional. Since every undergraduate at St. Thomas must take three math, science or computer courses (one course must be a natural science with a lab), the halls are busy; in fall 2000, 4,543 students took classes in those fields.
More students than ever are majoring in science and mathematics, and the Frey Science and Engineering Center provides state-of-the-art teaching facilities.
"Everyone is tuned in to science nationally — particularly biotechnology and computers — and certainly the involvement of students in scientific research at St. Thomas has increased tremendously," said Dr. Sue Chaplin, director of the Division of Sciences and Mathematics. "But we couldn’t accomplish very much if the space and sophisticated design of O’Shaughnessy and Owens had not made hands-on science possible for both faculty and students."
The technology for teaching also is far superior than in the past. LCD projectors that accommodate computer interface and VCRs are found in many classrooms, as is Internet access. These tools make interactive teaching and learning much easier. "They get the message across more clearly and allow us to ‘dazzle’ our students," one biology professor said.
"The new space inspires faculty to do more research, helps us hire excellent new faculty and they all, in turn, inspire students," Chaplin said. "It is uncommon for undergraduates to have as much actual lab experience as St. Thomas students do; in larger schools, more attention is paid to graduate and post-doctoral students. We give our undergraduates the opportunity to do research here and they are getting that research published as co-authors of articles in scientific journals. We support student travel to local and national conferences, and they are going out and winning prestigious prizes."
Student research presentations at national conferences increased five-fold over the past five years. Several have been recognized for excellence. Two St. Thomas juniors — Alison Leuthard and Meghan O’Brien — were honored with an Outstanding Paper Award at MathFest 2000 in Los Angeles in August. At the meeting, 32 student presenters from schools such as Cornell, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, Oberlin and Harvard gave papers. Leuthard and O’Brien, both engineering majors, came home with one of the six top awards.
"We’re proud of Alison and Meghan. They are very strong students," said Dr. Patrick Van Fleet, director of the Center for Applied Math. "Their research on analyzing the factorization of a multiwavelet transformation was a piece of my larger research project. We were glad to pay their way to Los Angeles," said Van Fleet, explaining that a natural application for this work is in image compression.
"We have state-of-the-art computing equipment and labs in O’Shaughnessy," Van Fleet said. "If I were a student looking at colleges, I would be influenced by what St. Thomas can offer. The buildings attract strong students — but the bottom line is we have good faculty."
The university’s mathematics and science division was known for good faculty and an innovative curriculum long before leaving Albertus Magnus Hall and moving to the Frey Center. Dr. Doug Dokken, who has taught mathematics at St. Thomas since 1985, explained why O’Shaughnessy is "twice as large and twice as good as Magnus.
"Now we have math classrooms with computers for every student. Now we have a much larger Math Resource Center, where all students can do homework, from finite math to calculus, and have a tutor right there to help them. In Magnus, we were scattered all over. Here our labs are near our offices and we are near our students."
This year students Dan Fox and Dustin Andert and fellow teachers helped Dokken build a vortex simulator that actually creates a funnel of air that looks like a tornado. "Based on a model suggested by top notch atmospherics scientists, it has many educational purposes," Dokken said.
"Here students can be part of the department. There is room for students to have a place of their own, to keep their books, to access computers and work," said Dr. Dwight Nelson, biology, who is in his seventh year at St. Thomas. "Owens Hall has much more lab space that we can dedicate to teaching courses for both majors and non-majors.
"Now lab equipment is better utilized. In Magnus, we were pressed for space and equipment could not be left in place from week to week. Students now have access to lab equipment between scheduled lab times and can work more independently."
Nelson also believes in offering food for thought to the general university community. He has organized a series of Biology Seminars over the past several years with outside speakers and titles that scream for attention. One seminar was "Baked Potatoes as the Way to a Prehistoric Man’s Heart: The (Barbequed) Roots of Human Evolution and Sexuality." The seminar’s premise was that one of the simplest explanations for basic differences between humans and non-human primates may be the advent of cooking.
About five students each semester are involved in Nelson’s neuroscience research on circadian rhythms. "Almost all plants and animals have an internal biological clock that runs on a rhythm of about 24 hours. This clock controls most of an animal’s behaviors, physiology and even cell function. In humans, circadian clocks control sleep, hormone rhythms and almost all aspects of our body. Abnormalities in the timing system cause problems like sleep disturbances, jet lag and may contribute to depression. In addition, many more accidents occur at night in critical jobs like piloting a plane because the human body is not optimally tuned to operating at those times," Nelson said.
Funded by a National Institute of Health grant, Nelson’s research centers on the resetting of these circadian clocks by light. He and his students developed a computer-based image acquisition system to measure sleep/wake rhythms in mice. "We expected to find that intense exercise or activity inhibited the influence of light on the internal clock," Nelson explained. "However, we were surprised to find that daily exercise may actually increase the sensitivity of the circadian clock to light." With his grant, Nelson buys equipment and pays student researchers during the summer and school year.
In the geological sciences, "David Dean, who is double majoring in geology and geography, worked with me on a project nicknamed Jurassic tank," said Dr. Tom Hickson. "David used geographic information system technology to visualize complex experimental data from the tank. His work will help us to see how rivers deposit sediment over millions of years of geologic time.
"The new science center played a very large role in both of us coming to St. Thomas," said Hickson, referring to himself and his wife, Dr. Melissa Lamb. Both have Ph.D.s in geology from Stanford University. "The department has large and very versatile lab spaces that can be used for both teaching and research. We have excellent space for our rock, mineral and fossil collections, so we feel we have a great foundation for teaching geology."
Lamb, who taught on a temporary basis at St. Thomas last year, said that the former geology chair, the late Jack Brownstein, "amassed a huge and wonderful collection of rocks and minerals and left the department his valuable library of more than 1,000 volumes. We bring friends who are geologists at the U over to see our facilities and they are amazed."
Lamb and Hickson also are planning January Term and spring break classes on rocks and fossils in the desert southwest and rock formation in Utah, which will let students practice their field skills.
Mongolia is another place students may end up with Lamb, who has led three expeditions to the Gobi Desert to "figure out the tectonic history. Mongolia is now in the center of Asia, but it used to be made up of tropical islands with coral reefs and volcanoes," she said. "Then it all got crushed between Russia and China as the huge tectonic plates in the Earth’s lithosphere shifted. I like looking at the big picture — what the geography and environment were like — and rocks hold the clues."
"The opportunity to involve students in research beyond the classroom is the real reason I’m here," said Dr. Marty Johnston, physics, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of California-Riverside.
An atomic physicist who humorously describes himself as "a garage mechanic to the universe," Johnston said he and his students "have to build a lot of equipment needed in their experiments. We use the physics machine shop on a daily basis. It’s a great place for the students to learn practical, hands-on skills. The experience our undergraduates receive gives them a jump up on competition, and that is essential when they apply for graduate school or for interesting jobs in their field."
Johnson’s research focuses on electron-atom scattering processes that are important in the production of computer chips and the development of polarized electron technology. A NASA-sponsored Minnesota Space Grant helps Johnston fund research support, pay students who work during the summers and school year, and offer some scholarship aid. Physics, engineering and chemistry students are involved in every aspect of his research. (Go to Physics on the St. Thomas Web page and click on "Lab Cam" for a view of Johnston’s labs.)
"A dramatic rise in enrollment" is how Dr. Ron Bennett, director of Engineering and Technology Manage-ment, describes the effect of his program’s move to O’Shaughnessy Hall. Mechanical engineering, which began in fall 1997, now has more than 50 majors.
"Both parents and students are very interested in a good liberal arts education as well as an engineering degree," Bennett said. "And we get some very good students who enjoy applied research."
Graduate engineering programs account for more than 500 active students with 250 to 300 working engineers taking a class or two each semester.
"We have an excellent full-time faculty and our facilities are so well-designed that they attract good part-time faculty. One of our adjuncts is Epraim Sparrow, a world-renowned heat-transfer expert. He loves the building, the campus environment, faculty and students, and he is building a world class heat-transfer lab. We get lots of volunteer support from the community," Bennett concluded.
Going from 24 computers to about 160 has been one of the more obvious benefits of more space, said Dr. Bernice Folz, who started Graduate Programs in Software Engineering (GPS) in 1985 with 52 students. "I don’t know why the students didn’t revolt," said Folz, describing the attic of Magnus. She said that six new labs were made possible by the new space: Real Time Research; Requirements Engineering; AI/High Performance & Parallel Computing; Web Application Devel-opment; Distributed Computing; and Systems Research.
Now enrolling more than 850 master’s students, graduate software engineering is still the largest program of its kind in the United States, offering three master’s programs and three graduate certificate programs. "We are very workplace oriented and we are getting many calls from companies that want to partner with us," Folz said. Two years ago, the University of Minnesota began a similar master’s program.
An alum who really sees a difference in science facilities is Dr. Paul Ohmann, 32, who graduated from St. Thomas with a physics and math double major in 1990. Ohmann received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1994, did post doctoral work at Hamburg, Germany, and Oxford, England, worked for Lockheed Martin for three years — and returned to St. Thomas as an assistant professor of physics in fall 2000.
"I valued the individual attention at St. Thomas, and the degree to which faculty cared about students and learning," said Ohmann, speaking of his student years. "That’s what inspired me to come back."
"The comparison of Magnus to the new facilities is night and day! The science center is just wonderful. Students are excited about the experience here and we have space to be active in getting students to work with faculty. I like the interactive collaboration with my colleagues, too."
"The general image of St. Thomas is that it is a business school. This sophisticated and complex center with its excellent faculty and students have helped our visibility and reputation grow in science education," said Chaplin, who has a Ph.D. in physiology from Cornell University. "When we host conferences or workshops on science facilities here, several participants revisit the center with their architects and trustees. We often hear comments that St. Thomas knew what it was doing when this center was built."