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Summer Science & Engineering Program

Research Courses

Unlike regular school classes, SSEP research courses emphasize asking questions and learning by doing, not only by listening and watching.

Students choose two two-week research courses; in these, groups of up to 16 students work alongside Smith faculty members, assisted by undergraduate interns. Informal lectures in the laboratory and out in the field encourage students to ask research questions, and they learn to conduct actual experiments. Most of the work is carried out as a cooperative team effort, with ample opportunities for individual contributions. SSEP participants learn how scientists and engineers formulate questions, work on amazingly sophisticated scientific instruments and develop valuable critical thinking and analytical skills.

Course Selection

Students who have paid their deposit will receive a link to the course selection form in late April in which they rank their preferences for courses. These forms, along with the application essay, help place students in their classes. Although not everyone will get their first choice, most students do. Students will be notified of their course placement on June 15.

July 6–17, 2015

The Chemistry of Herbal Medicine: A Complex Molecular Story

Open to all students

Led by Mona Kulp, Ph.D., Laboratory Instructor, Department of Chemistry, Smith College.

A large portion of the world's population has a rich tradition of relying on plants for their medicinal properties. There is also a surging interest in integrating alternative medicine into contemporary western medical practice. Along with this interest, there is a growing realization in the scientific community that we need to better understand the safety and efficacy of these herbal medicines. In this course, we will start with plant material and go through the process of extracting and analyzing the compounds found in some commonly used herbal preparations. This course will also look at examples in the peer-reviewed literature to understand how these compounds alter the biochemistry of the human body and their impacts on human health. In addition to the analytical instruments and resources available in the Chemistry department for analyzing these samples, the students taking the course are also exposed to additional resources on the Smith campus, including the Mortimer Rare Book Room for historical material on the use of herbal medicine and the Botanic Gardens, which will provide some of the medicinal plants used in the experiments.

There are no prerequisites for this course. The course is designed as an introductory experience for students who have an interest in both chemistry and biology. The students will be introduced to ideas in chemistry and biology in an interdisciplinary setting so that they can build connections between the two disciplines.

The Body in Motion: An Inquiry into Exercise Science

Open to all students

Led by Katlin Okamoto, M.S., lecturer of exercise and sport studies, Smith College.

The ability of the body to generate, maintain, and optimize movement is both scientifically fascinating and essential to the activities of our daily lives. In this course we will investigate concepts and principles of anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology, building an understanding of how our bodies produce motion, utilize energy, and optimize movement. The course is inherently experiential and will be taught with a blend of discussions, activities, and laboratories where individuals will quite literally move their way through the science of exercise. Students will use their own bodies to learn about topics including the tissues and joints of the body, energy expenditure, energy systems, and applied biomechanics.


The course may be particularly relevant to those who have an interest in exercise science, sports, fitness & health, physical therapy, and medicine. There are no necessary prerequisites for this course; however, students must be willing to participate in regular activities that require moderate physical activity and movement. All fitness and ability levels are welcome and encouraged to take this course!

By Girls, For Girls

Open to all students

Led by Leslie Jaffe, M.D., Director of Health Services, Smith College.

Adolescent girls face an array of health-related challenges in their daily lives, and this course empowers them to address these challenges while investigating other health issues that affect them. Using individual and group activities, the course involves research, discussion, field trips and presentations. Participants travel to New York City to work with theater coaches and to develop skits that convey information and stimulate peer dialogue about issues affecting young women, such as the menstrual cycle, healthy eating, media literacy, violence, alcohol and other drugs, reproductive health, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, and emotional health. These topics are considered within the contexts of current research in biology and medicine, and today's multicultural society. Supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a medical research organization.

Students in this course become members of a close-knit working group, sharing their own stories and learning from others while conducting research and participating in course activities. Students interested in health-related careers and medicine will find this course useful.

Designing Intelligent Robots

Open to all students

Led by Doreen Weinberger, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, Smith College.

This course is a hands-on introduction to robot design and programming. Student teams will receive a kit containing a microprocessor controller, a set of motors and sensors, and various Lego building parts and tools. They will learn how to connect the components and program the controller to make a robot that can move autonomously and intelligently in its environment. For instance, with appropriate programming the robot can avoid obstacles, seek out light, make decisions for changing its behavior based on sensory input, or respond to messages communicated by other robots. Students will perform a variety of activities: building simple robots to accomplish specific tasks, programming in a PC lab, creating their own final robot project, and testing and redesigning to optimize their robot performance. They will also learn HTML and use it to create their own web pages, which will serve as a record of their progress in the course.

Unlike many courses in robotics where the task is to build a robot that performs a specific function (for example pushing ping-pong balls or battling with another robot), in this course students use their own creativity to design robots that do whatever they want. There is lots of trial and error problem-solving in both computer programming and building the robots. Students also learn how to create their own web pages where they document their design process.

Your Genes, Your Chromosomes: A Laboratory in Human Genetics

Open to students who have completed one year of high school biology

Led by Lori Saunders, Ph.D., Laboratory Instructor, Biological Sciences, Smith College, and Lou Ann Bierwert, M.A., information and technology director, Center for Molecular Biology, Smith College.

Human genetics has fascinated us for centuries—beginning with the basic question of why we look like our ancestors and continuing to recent advances in medical and courtroom analyses. In this course, students will gain experience with a variety of classical and modern techniques used in human genetic analysis. The course will include explorations in basic genetics, probability, pedigree analysis, molecular genetics and population genetics. Participants will determine their own blood types and calculate the frequencies of blood-type alleles in their class, photograph their own chromosomes, sort them into a karyotype and construct part of their own DNA fingerprints using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

Students in this course spend most of their time in the research laboratory. The subjects of the experiments are the students themselves—students will collect their own blood samples (with a simple finger poke) for a variety of analyses. Time between experiments is spent working on genetic problem sets. Visiting speakers include a genetic counselor and a DNA crime scene analyst.

Narrative and Imagination in Science: A Workshop for Writers

Open to all students

Led by Naila Moreira, Ph.D., Science Writing Counselor, Smith College.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Science in the laboratory and the field would silently die there if no one ever wrote about their findings. And, just as importantly, non-scientists need to read well-written pieces about science so that all people can understand its importance and beauty. In this class, we’ll tackle topics in nature and science by writing science journalism, personal essays, and poetry. We’ll share our writing with one another, read famous examples, and learn ways to describe the world of science in literary and journalistic, not only scientific, ways. We’ll write in and about many places – in Smith College’s Lyman Plant House, in laboratories at Smith and the University of Massachusetts, at the Emily Dickinson homestead in Amherst, even at the top of a mountain.

Each student will develop a portfolio of written work (possibly later useful for college essays or writing samples), and will help create a class newspaper. Ultimately, by linking the personal and the scientific to show how science matters in day to day life, we’ll seek to make science come alive in both the mind and the heart.

Microcontrollers and You: An Introduction to Arduino

Open to all students with an interest in computer programming or engineering

Led by Joyce Palmer Fortune, Ph.D., Lecturer and Laboratory Instructor, Physics Department, Smith College.

Microcontrollers are essential to our modern life. From nightlights to spaceships, these little electronic chips are everywhere. Have you ever wanted to know how a remote control works, or how a dishwasher knows when to change cycles? Have you ever wanted to design your own electronic device? If so, then this class is for you! In this class we will explore the basics of circuit design and computer programming using the popular Arduino platform. Some topics that will be covered are: electrical components, basic electrical circuits, hardware systems, programming, and device design. You will design and build your own final project that will put the mighty microcontroller to work for you.

July 20–31, 2015

The Chemistry of Herbal Medicine: A Complex Molecular Story

Open to all students

Led by Mona Kulp, Ph.D., Laboratory Instructor, Department of Chemistry, Smith College.

A large portion of the world's population has a rich tradition of relying on plants for their medicinal properties. There is also a surging interest in integrating alternative medicine into contemporary western medical practice. Along with this interest, there is a growing realization in the scientific community that we need to better understand the safety and efficacy of these herbal medicines. In this course, we will start with plant material and go through the process of extracting and analyzing the compounds found in some commonly used herbal preparations. This course will also look at examples in the peer-reviewed literature to understand how these compounds alter the biochemistry of the human body and their impacts on human health. In addition to the analytical instruments and resources available in the Chemistry department for analyzing these samples, the students taking the course would also be exposed to additional resources on the Smith campus, including the Mortimer Rare Book Rroom for historical material on the use of herbal medicine and the Botanic Garden, which will provide some of the medicinal plants used in the experiments.

There are no prerequisites for this course. The course will be designed as an introductory experience for students who have an interest in both chemistry and biology. The students will be introduced to ideas in chemistry and biology in an interdisciplinary setting so that they can build connections between the two disciplines.

Where on Earth Do You Get All That Energy?

Open to all students

Led by Denise Lello, PhD., Biomath and HHMI Coordinator, Smith College.

How does life on Earth harness, use and distribute energy? What tools can we use to estimate energy use and transfer, and how can we scale these estimates up to population and global levels? How do your energy needs compare with those of other top predators?


All life requires energy, and ultimately that energy is derived from the sun. Using the Smith Botanic Garden and other field sites, we will explore the ways plants capture solar energy and store it in chemical bonds that provide food for animals. We’ll estimate how much energy it takes to generate a nectar-producing plant from a seed. We’ll measure the nectar’s sugar content in the lab, approximate the energy contained in the flower’s pollen, and then calculate how many flowers it takes to support the energy needs of a beehive. We’ll visit an apiary to study insect behavior and learn how beekeepers determine the energy needs of their hives.


Next we’ll shift to human energy dynamics. We’ll estimate our own energy consumption using equipment in Smith’s Exercise Science department. We’ll replenish the energy we used with ice cream from a local dairy farm, where we’ll examine the energy demands of animal protein production. Finally, we’ll use computer models to estimate the lifetime energy needs of a human in the food consumed, clothes and housing occupied, vehicles and electronics used, etc. Ultimately, we’ll explore the different forms of energy we use to power our lives and investigate which of these depend on captured and stored energy, and which of these can depend on other—potentially renewable—forms of energy.

Making Connections: An Investigation of the Nervous System

Open to students who have completed one year of high school biology

Led by Adam Hall, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Bbiological Sciences, and Lou Ann Bierwert, M.A., Information and Technology Director, Center for Molecular Biology, Smith College.

Through studies of the nervous system, neuroscientists explore how we sense, feel, think and move. Students in this course will learn about how neurons (cells of the nervous system) communicate through a fascinating array of mechanisms and networks to generate complex human behaviors. Using sophisticated microscopes, we will examine the cells of the nervous system and the neuroanatomy of the brain. Through experiments in the laboratory, we will explore how neurons function at multiple levels: molecular, cellular and in living organisms such as ourselves. With some simple (and painless) techniques, we will measure nerve conduction in our own bodies and brains. We will assess differential gene expression in the nervous system compared to the liver through Quantitative RT-PCR analysis and investigate the relationship of our findings to disorders as well as normal function.

This course is suited to science students who want to get an idea of neuroscience and of what it’s like to work in a laboratory. Students will make observations of brain cells and anatomy, relate it to function, and then measure and analyze neuronal conductions in their own peripheral and central nervous systems, as well as behavior.

Adventures in Anatomy

Open to all students

Led by Katlin Okamoto, M.S., lecturer of exercise and sport studies, Smith College.

Through this course we will explore the form and structure of the human body using traditional forms of study in addition to artistic works, historical accounts, anthropometrics, and exploratory activities aimed at providing the student with increased holistic comprehension of gross human anatomy. Coursework in osteology, arthrology, and myology will provide understanding of the basic composition and development of the musculoskeletal system. Additionally, the composition and arrangement of other systems will be discussed. Moving beyond structure, we will look at the intersection of form and function as it relates to movement, physical evolution, and performance optimization. This course aims to expand our understanding of the human body by utilizing our rich history of curiosity surrounding the human form and its exploration within multiple fields of study. Students with interests in the medical and health related fields, kinesiology, exercise science, and ergonomics will find this course relevant. There are no prerequisites for enrollment. Class members will be expected to participate in all activities, including moderate physical activity and movement, drawing, and group work. All levels of experience in anatomy, art, and physical activity are welcome!

Meteorites and Asteroids

Open to all students with an interest in geology or astronomy

Led by Thomas Burbine, Ph.D., Director of the Mount Holyoke College Observatory

Meteorites are the oldest known objects in the solar system, with ages of approximately 4.6 billion years. The goal of this course is to give students an appreciation of meteorites as geologic objects. We will cover all aspects of meteorites from mineralogy, petrology, bulk chemistry, and isotopic systematics, and learn about a variety of laboratory equipment used to study meteorites, including the petrographic and the scanning electron microscope. Meteorites will be observed in hand sample and in thin section. We will also learn about asteroids, the parent bodies of almost all meteorites. Asteroids have collided with the Earth and are thought to have killed off the dinosaurs. We will discuss the numerous spacecraft missions that have studied these minor planets. The students will take a field trip to the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College to look at more meteorite specimens and dinosaur fossils.

The students will study actual meteorites in the lab using a variety of analytical techniques. No prior knowledge of meteorites or asteroids will be assumed. The students will use basic math skills to calculate the compositions of the meteorites.

Designing Intelligent Robots

Open to all students

Led by Doreen Weinberger, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, Smith College.

This course is a hands-on introduction to robot design and programming. Student teams will receive a kit containing a microprocessor controller, a set of motors and sensors, and various Lego building parts and tools. They will learn how to connect the components and program the controller to make a robot that can move autonomously and intelligently in its environment. For instance, with appropriate programming the robot can avoid obstacles, seek out light, make decisions for changing its behavior based on sensory input, or respond to messages communicated by other robots. Students will perform a variety of activities: building simple robots to accomplish specific tasks, programming in a PC lab, creating their own final robot project, and testing and redesigning to optimize their robot performance. They will also learn HTML and use it to create their own web pages, which will serve as a record of their progress in the course.

Unlike many courses in robotics where the task is to build a robot that performs a specific function (for example pushing ping-pong balls or battling with another robot), in this course students use their own creativity to design robots that do whatever they want. There is lots of trial and error problem-solving in both computer programming and building the robots. Students also learn how to create their own web pages where they document their design process.

Introduction to Python Programming

Open to all students

Led by Jessica Grant, M.S., Laboratory Instructor, Computer Science Dept., Smith College

This introductory computer science course aims to teach coding skills while also introducing computational thinking and program design. Each student will learn basic techniques using the Python programming language, while focusing on a topic of interest to her. Topics may include game design, graphics, artificial intelligence and cryptography. Computer skills are best learned hands-on. Most of the time in this class will be spent working in groups, discussing ideas and implementation and actually coding. We will share our progress with other class members and brainstorm ideas and solutions. By taking an idea through the steps of abstraction, algorithm development and coding, students will see that all kinds of problems can be approached computationally.