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Summer Science & Engineering Program

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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 17 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.

2017 Courses

July 10–21, 2017

The Chemistry of Herbal Medicine: A Complex Molecular Story

Open to all students

Led by Mona Kulp, Ph.D., Laboratory Instructor 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.

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 young women to address these challenges while investigating health issues. Through individual and group activities, this course provides opportunities to learn about health issues relevant to young women. Course activities include research, discussion, field trips, and presentations. Participants work with theater coaches to develop theater skits that communicate information and stimulate dialogue amongst their peers about young women's issues 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 multi-cultural society. By Girls, For Girls is an intense and rewarding course that builds individual and group knowledge and awareness.

This course is open to all students motivated to learn. 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 may find this course useful.

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 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.

Introduction to Python Programming

Open to all students

Led by Jessica Grant, M.S., Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, 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.

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., Professor of Biological Sciences, and Naren Pathak, Lecturer, Biological Sciences, 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 even measure nerve conduction in our own bodies and brains.

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.

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.

July 23-August 4, 2017

Microcontrollers and You: An Introduction to Arduino

Open to all students

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

Biomedical Ethics

Open to all students

Led by Samuel Ruhmkorff, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Smith College.

New technology presents us with new ethical challenges because it gives us power we did not previously have. Through technology we can save some people's lives for little cost, spend immense amounts of money to prolong the lives of others, test fetuses for genetic abnormalities, keep people alive beyond the ability of their organs to function independently, gestate fetuses in surrogates, and affect people's lives on the other side of the world. Possible future technological developments with significant ethical implications include: the development of artificial intelligence; the ability to genetically engineer new organisms, resurrect extinct species, and genetically enhance humans; and the ability to 'design' fetuses.

Ethical questions we will examine include: Is it permissible to dedicate substantial resources to enhance health marginally for a few in developed countries when the same resources could allow for dramatic health improvements for many in developing countries? Should doctors always tell the unadulterated truth to their patients? Is it ethical to abort fetuses because they have genetic abnormalities? If we develop the technology to create humans with enhanced intelligence, or to clone a Neanderthal, should we? How should we manage the pursuit of artificial intelligence safely and ethically?

Our examination of the ethical issues arising out of current and future technologies will include reading classic and contemporary texts; engaging in active class discussion, role-playing exercises, and strategy games; meeting with professionals who confront issues in medical ethics; and writing informal and formal assignments.

Anatomy 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!

Science & Nature Writing

Open to all students

Led by Ethan Myers, M.A., Lecturer of English Language & Literature, Smith College.

The world is inscribed with stories.

In this writing course, we will read and write the stories of this landscape as we explore the area's forests, rivers, mountains, and lakes, and mine the rich resources of the Smith library and the Botanic Garden of Smith College. Your actual work will likely include, at minimum, keeping a field notebook in which you develop the crafts of observation and reflection; composing a reflection essay that may provide the foundation for a college application essay; and creating maps in which we layer the scientific and human stories of the local environment. In addition to writing and workshopping your compositions, you can expect to spend significant time outside, on field trips, and on short day hikes.

Geologists tell us a story about an age before human settlement when glaciers retreated from New England and created Lake Hitchcock, which flooded the Connecticut River valley from Vermont to Connecticut. The area's earliest humans show up only after Lake Hitchcock drained, on the banks of the river left behind. But local Pocumtuck creation myths tell of a lake strikingly similar to Hitchcock. Rising from its waters, they said, was a giant beaver, killed and turned to stone. That beaver is what we now call Mount Sugarloaf, and rises above neither glacial nor mythical waters, but above rich farmlands created by the sediments deposited by river deltas that once fed Lake Hitchcock. Those sediments now feed a flourishing small farm movement and today's residents of the Connecticut River valley.

Fighting Infections Using Soil Bacteria

Open to all students with one year of high school biology

Led by Chris Vriezen, Ph.D., Laboratory Instructor of Biosciences, Smith College.

Antibiotics play an important role in modern medical treatments for bacterial infections. Their discovery revolutionized the practice of medicine and significantly reduced death rates due to infection and bacterial diseases. However, the overuse of antibiotics has lead to a dramatic increase in antibiotic resistant microorganisms that can cause infections. Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Flouroquinolone resistant Clostridium difficile (C. diff) are just two examples of pathogens in which antibiotic resistance has had dramatic effects on our ability to overcome infections caused by these microorganisms. One potential solution to this problem is to again go to the soil biome and attempt to find and characterize novel bacterial isolates with the ability to produce antibiotics. Students will first learn standard microbiological techniques such as aseptic work, isolation streaks, making and inoculating liquid cultures, and plate counting. This is followed by the screening of novel bacteria from soil we collect ourselves at Smith’s MacLeish Field Station. Finally, some isolates may be characterized in more detail on the molecular (PCR and sequencing) and Biochemical level. Although strict safety protocols are followed, this class is not appropriate for students with compromised immune systems.

Designing & Building Drones

Open to all students

Led by Jon Caris, Spatial Analysis Lab Director, Smith College.

Drones, also known as small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are revolutionizing field based scientific research. They are also becoming integral to many industries and operations such as film making, infrastructure inspections, search & rescue, farming, and of course, package delivery. Drones are also a very disruptive technology that is not without controversy and concern. In this course, we will explore both the technology and the dilemma of drones. You will learn and understand the enabling technology by building a drone with a partner, while keeping a build journal to document your process. After the build, you'll fly and practice getting that perfect dronie (a selfie taken by a drone) to send home to your friends and family. Before you take control of your drone, you and your partner will have to understand safe flight and operations. Drones are fun, but we take them very seriously.

Students in this class will gain experience with design, critical thinking, and troubleshooting. They'll also learn about photogrammetry, mapping, drone programming and configuration, electronics and aerodynamics. This course is for students with interests in engineering, field studies, photography, and filmmaking.

Food Is My Medicine

Open to all students

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

There is a well-established link between food that we eat and common chronic health conditions such as diabetes and coronary heart disease. It has also been proposed that food or particular diets could serve as the key to reversing these health outcomes. This course will focus on taking an evidence-based approach to food and health claims. We will also spend time analyzing the chemistry and biology of food! Using a number of analytical techniques, we will learn how scientists are able to determine the nutritional content of whole foods. We will also look for chemicals that are commonly used as food additives and understand their impact on human health. Outside of our lecture and lab time, we will spend some time at a local farm and try out some recipes incorporating ideas from our chemistry labs! Our goals are to take a holistic look at the food we eat and the idea that food can serve as medicine. Specific objectives for the course are to give students hands-on laboratory experience with chemistry, develop scientific writing and presentation skills, expand skills in chemical literacy, and critically read scientific papers. There are no prerequisites for this course. The course is designed as an introductory experience for students who have an interest in chemistry, biology, health, and medicine.

Anxiety in Young Children

Open to all students

Led by Alexandra Burgess, Ph.D., Lecturer, Psychology Department, Smith College.

We all experience anxiety; it is an inherent quality of the human condition. In this course, we will explore why humans experience anxiety and discuss the important function that anxiety plays in our lives. At the same time, sometimes severe anxiety symptoms develop in early childhood that create problems in daily living. Students will learn about how anxiety can become problematic and the different ways that high levels of anxiety can be expressed in young children (e.g., Social Phobia, Separation Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic, General Anxiety). In discussing these anxiety disorders, students will learn to approach the topic with the lens of a clinical psychologist. Students will not only learn about childhood anxiety, but also about the methods that clinical psychologists use to study these problems. Experiential learning components include the collection of data by and with class participants, analysis of data from an ongoing study in a statistics laboratory, and creative projects related to the human experience of anxiety.