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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

Upon acceptance to the SSEP, students receive a course selection sheet 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.

July 7–18, 2014

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 kinesiology and exercise physiology, building an understanding of how our bodies produce motion, utilize energy and optimize the movements required for exercise and sport. A hands-on approach will be used to learn about such topics as the tissues and joints of the body, energy expenditure, energy systems and training principles. Students will learn methods to assess their current physical fitness and will become familiar with training programs used to attain specific performance and health-related goals. 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.

The course may be particularly relevant to those who have an interest in exercise science, sports, and fitness and health. There are no necessary prerequisites for this course, but 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 in this course!

The History of Earth and Life

Open to all interested students, but best suited to students who have completed a year of high school biology or Earth science

Led by Sara B. Pruss, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Geological Sciences Department, Smith College.

Did you know that ancient volcanoes on our planet formed the oceans? Did you know that the earliest large complex organisms had no mouth or limbs? The history of life on our planet is like a science fiction novel, full of weird creatures, mass extinctions, and major evolutionary events. In this class, we will explore the history of life from its first appearance to the present. We will learn about the conditions that first fostered life on our planet and how environments have changed over time. We will examine fossils and rocks in labs and learn how to identify the major groups of organisms that have lived on our planet. We will also take a series of local field trips to examine the local geology of our area. The rocks of Western Massachusetts record the opening of the Atlantic Ocean several million years ago; we will look for evidence of the creatures that lived during this time and learn how to examine rocks in the field.

Students in this course will spend time in both the research laboratory and in the field. Closed-toed shoes for hiking and rain jackets for inclement weather are required!

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 Robert Merritt, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences, 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.

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.

Microcontrollers and You: An Introduction to Arduino

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

Led by Dana Parsons, M.S., Laboratory Supervisor and 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 21–August 1, 2014

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 Do You Get All That Energy?

Open to any student interested in thinking about what it takes to support life on Earth and learning how to estimate energy use and energy budgets

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

This class examines how life on Earth harnesses, uses and distributes energy. Students will become familiar with ways that we model energy budgets and how to scale these estimates up to population and global levels. How do your energy needs compare with those of other top predators, and how much energy does it really take to support a modern human life?

David Suzuki wrote, “Life is the organic expression of energy.” All life requires energy, and ultimately that energy is derived from the sun. How does the sun’s energy circulate around the earth, and how does it move through ecosystems? Using the Smith Botanic Garden and other field sites, we will explore the ways plants capture energy and store it in chemical bonds and how it is accessed and used by animals. We’ll start by estimating how much energy it takes to generate a nectar-producing plant from a seed. Next, we’ll measure the sugar contained in the nectar from a flower, evaluate the energy contained in the flower’s pollen and then calculate how many of such flowers it takes to support the energy needs of a beehive. Finally, we’ll observe the predators of the pollinators and model how many bees it takes to support them. Expanding on this knowledge, we’ll work together to model a lifetime human energy budget (you can use your own life or a fantasy life) and estimate how much energy that life requires (in the food you will eat, the clothes and house you use to keep you warm, the vehicles you ride in and the electronics you use). Ultimately, we’ll explore the different forms of energy we use to power our lives and discuss some alternatives.

We’ll spend some time in the field sampling nectar and pollen and watching insect behavior; we’ll also work in the lab analyzing sugar content and respiration rates. We’ll use computer models to create energy budgets and visit power-generating facilities on the Smith campus.

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 Allison Anacker, Ph.D., Eveillard Postdoctoral Fellow in Neuroscience, 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 behaviors relevant to psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, and analyze whether drug treatments affect such behaviors.

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.

Narrative and Imagination in Science: A Workshop for Writers

Open to all students

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

In both its intrinsic nature and its pursuit by scientists, science holds a special glamour that can light up writing and art like a candle. In this course, we will write creatively and journalistically about science through field trips, workshops and independent projects. We'll start by writing from observation, the scientist's primary tool, drawing directly from nature and local museums such as Smith's Lyman Plant House. Because reading is crucial to writing well, we'll also read a variety of essays, articles and poems focused on science and written by some of the greats in literature and science. Finally, students will try their hand at science journalism, interviewing local scientists at work and producing a reportorial, newspaper-style article.

Clear, concise and effective expression is vital to scientific achievement and exchange, and all students, even those unpracticed or uncomfortable with writing, will have the opportunity to enhance and develop their written work. Each student will develop a portfolio of original writing.

Optics is Light Work

Open to all students

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

Light travels in a straight line–except when it doesn't! In this summer course we will take a hands-on, exploratory approach to the nature of light. We'll explore how the eye makes an image you can see and how we use optics to make images that we otherwise couldn't see, as in telescopes and microscopes. We'll examine the wave model of light through interference and diffraction, and the particle model of light through the photoelectric effect. If time allows, we'll investigate the use of diffraction in spectroscopy and imaging. We'll conclude by building a laser, using what we've learned in class.

The majority of work in this class will take place in the laboratory. Students will learn about topics that most high school physics courses don't cover due to time constraints, but which are some of the most interesting phenomena in physics, and in fact the basis of modern physics.

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.

Microcontrollers and You: An Introduction to Arduino

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

Led by Dana Parsons, M.S., Laboratory Supervisor and 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.