“I came here last year. I did the internship over the summer with NIU and Fermilab. And I just find physics really interesting,” said Matthew Williams, a senior at Sterling High School. “I think it’s cool how we can get a better understanding of how the world around us works even though we can’t necessarily directly observe things.”
Chase Pipes, also a Sterling High senior, was equally enthusiastic. “It’s interesting to learn about all the small things that come together and influence life,” he said.
The day included a morning talk by Chakraborty, who directs the QuarkNet program at NIU, including these Masterclasses, on the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.
NIU Professor Dhiman Chakraborty (rights) talks with students Matthew Williams (left) and Chase Pipes.
Famously dubbed the “God particle,” the Higgs boson took thousands of scientists nearly five decades to detect and is considered by many as one of the most significant discoveries ever. The particle’s detection confirms the existence of the Higgs field, which permeates the universe and gives particles mass.
The discovery also resulted in a new and gripping documentary, “Particle Fever,” which chronicles the 20-year effort to build the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and details the hunt for the Higgs boson. (The movie is playing at the AMC Showplace 16 off Route 59 in Naperville.)
Each year, about 10,000 high school students in 40 countries come to universities and research centers for hands-on learning during masterclass events. Participants at NIU included Inken Michael of Germany, an exchange student at Sterling High School.
“I’m really interested in physics, and I thought it was a good opportunity to go to NIU,” she said.
Michael and her peers visiting NIU learned how to measure, analyze and understand real particle physics data from particle collisions at CERN. The laboratory’s Large Hadron Collider is the most powerful particle accelerator on the planet. The accelerator crashes together protons moving in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light to recreate conditions after the Big Bang.
At the day’s conclusion, students participated in a video-conference and compared their measurements with students and scientists at QuarkNet centers from across the world.
“Annual QuarkNet Masterclasses like this one at NIU give students a sense of what goes into Nobel-prize winning discoveries like those of the W and Z bosons, the top quark and the Higgs boson,” Chakraborty said.
“We hope students leave with an appreciation of the levels of intellectual excellence, technological innovation, perseverance, attention to details, disciplined teamwork and decades of unwavering commitment that are required to prove the existence of these extremely short-lived subatomic particles, without whom our own existence would not have been possible. We hope it inspires them to adopt those qualities in whatever they choose to pursue in their own lives.”
Date posted: March 14, 2014 | Author: Thomas Parisi | Comments Off on A super (collider) lesson
NIU plays host this weekend to the 32nd annual Novice National Forensics Tournament, a three-day event that will serve as a stepping stone for competitors, a homecoming for many coaches and an intense learning experience for two NIU students.
Students and coaches from 10 states and 25 schools will compete in intercollegiate debate and individual events.
Open to students in their first year of intercollegiate forensics competition, Novice Nationals is designed as an educational event that is competitive yet more low-key than other national tournaments.
Many students who have competed at Novice Nationals have gone on to success in the major national tournaments as well.
NIU students Alex Aebly and Kristina Kerchner, general studies majors in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, are serving as student directors of the tournament and gaining valuable experience in tournament direction and event planning.
Their duties have included working with local hotels and businesses along with numerous offices on campus. Aebly and Kerchner solicited volunteers and created teams to work on different tournament-organization tasks. They also will help run the tournament, using tabulation and scheduling software.
“This was a fine example of engaged, experiential learning for Alex and Kristina, who have been immersed in tournament planning for the last six months,” Santacaterina said.
“They experienced first-hand what it takes to organize and plan a major event like this,” she added. “The tournament has given them the opportunity to work with a professional forensics organization, interact with faculty from other schools and connect with alumni who are coming back for the tournament. It is an impressive accomplishment.”
The debate portion of the Novice National Forensics Tournament will be held from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, with the individual events competition slated for 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
The competitions will be held in various rooms of DuSable and Reavis halls.
Date posted: March 12, 2014 | Author: Thomas Parisi | Comments Off on NIU to host Novice National Forensics tourney
NIU this semester is launching a new Center for Secondary Science and Mathematics Education, aimed at strengthening the university’s support of science and mathematics education throughout the region.
The Illinois Board of Higher Education recently approved center status for a duration of five years, after which it could become permanent. The center will be housed in Faraday Hall.
NIU already is consistently in the Top 10 universities in the nation in terms of producing graduates who become secondary math teachers. The university typically averages more than 30 such graduates a year, and because of the program’s strong licensure requirements, those graduates land jobs nationwide, said Bonnie Kersten, coordinator of teacher licensure in the mathematics department.
“While the training of mathematics teachers continues to be among our strong suits at NIU, the new center addresses a particular need that arose in the sciences, where we had seen numbers thin among faculty members who train students to become middle and high school science teachers,” added Chris McCord, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS).
“We needed to rebuild, and I thought it much stronger to rebuild in the center configuration, and to bring the sciences and mathematics together in the enterprise,” McCord said.
At NIU, CLAS oversees teacher licensure programs in biology, chemistry, earth and space sciences, physics and mathematics, as well as foreign languages, social sciences and English.
Major goals of the new center include:
streamlining science and mathematics education within Liberal Arts and Sciences,
increasing the pipeline of student teachers prepared for licensure in science and mathematics education,
augmenting the knowledge and skills of the region’s current science and math teachers through delivery of expanded professional development offerings,
collaborating with schools in the region to improve middle and high school students’ performance in science and math, and
engaging in interdisciplinary research on effective teaching and learning strategies.
“The center brings together a group of top faculty members who have a common goal to promote math and science education,” said biology professor Jon Miller, who has been tapped as the center’s interim director.
Miller said interest is on the upswing among NIU students who seek to become science teachers. A cohort of eight such students will graduate in May, followed by an expected cohort of 16 next year.
“I also have 14 incoming students for next fall interested just in the area of teaching biology, not to mention students seeking to teach in other areas of science,” Miller said.
“If you look at the big picture in education, math and science teachers remain in demand at the middle and high school levels, with physics in the most demand,” he said. “High school students want to take physics, but there’s a shortage of teachers.”
The new center is supported by Kersten in mathematics and science coordinator Judy Boisen.
Some of the center’s faculty associates are already involved in professional development efforts in school districts throughout the region, and Miller envisions the center engaging with high school students interested in doing research as well.
Additionally, the new center will be better positioned to attract grant money, Miller said.
Center associates are currently working on a proposed $3.6 million grant to partner with public schools in a nearby county and promote STEM learning for K-5 teachers. The grant would include partnerships with mining and gravel pit companies in the region, so young students could learn about STEM fields in industry.
Dean McCord noted that the College of Education and College of Engineering and Engineering Technology were involved in planning for the center.
“At present, the center is within Liberal Arts and Sciences,” he said, “but we see this as a step in integrating STEM education efforts across campus.”
Date posted: March 5, 2014 | Author: Thomas Parisi | Comments Off on NIU to boost secondary science, math education
The career support category takes into account the quality of career planning resources and support received both during and after graduate school studies. Using a 10-star system, rankings were compiled from student ratings and reviews posted on the website from Sept. 1, 2012, through Sept. 30, 2013.
“I think the ranking speaks to our faculty’s commitment to the professionalization of our graduate students, as well as to President Baker’s emphasis on ‘student career success,’ ” English Chair Amy Levin says. “Our department does an excellent job supporting students in the classroom and beyond, and I think we’re getting better all the time.
“The recognition also reflects upon the fact that we’re helping students where they really need it, and that’s important in this job market,” Levin adds. “Even after students graduate and get work, we stay in touch. If they have questions or need support during the first couple of years on the job, they will often consult with faculty.”
Caresse John earned her Ph.D. in American literature at NIU in 2008 and now works as an assistant professor at Belmont University in Tennessee.
“Everything about my experience at Northern was fulfilling,” she says. “I had a wonderful support system within the English department.”
John recalls how professor Brian May, who previously served as the department’s placement adviser for Ph.D. candidates, helped her and other graduate students prepare for the job market by reviewing writing samples, assisting with job-related document preparation and prepping for interviews.
“There was no way I would have gotten a job if it wasn’t for Dr. May,” John says. “He was like a coach, mentor and cheerleader.”
John also received extensive assistance from Career Services, which helped her prepare her dossier and send it out to more than 50 prospective employers. Now, in her post at Belmont University, she finds herself helping graduate students prepare for the job market.
“They’re very grateful,” John says. “I always say to them, ‘That’s what someone did for me.’ ”
For students seeking to enter academic professions, NIU’s English department regularly offers professionalization workshops on such topics as abstract-writing, presenting at conferences and publication in scholarly journals. Professor Jessica Reyman, who now serves as the specialized placement adviser for Ph.D. students, provides hands-on assistance, including workshops on how to apply for academic jobs and mock interviews that drill down to such details as what to wear.
Students earning Ph.D.s in recent years have gone on to teaching posts worldwide, including at Miami University of Ohio, Utica College in New York, Murray State in Kentucky, West Virginia University Technical College, Northern Arizona University and institutions in Korea, Guam, Uganda and Thailand.
Mark Van Wienen
“We combine excellence in classroom instruction with personal attention to the goals of our students,” says professor Mark Van Wienen, English graduate studies director. “We have seven different M.A. programs, and each has a different specialized adviser paying attention to the needs of students in that program.”
Van Wienen says the department also seeks to “meet students where they’re at.”
“If their goal is teaching at a teaching-centered college, university or community college, we help them toward that goal,” he says. “If their goal is a research-oriented academic job, we provide the specialized training and model the research acumen and production for them to seek that goal as well. If, as does happen, our students do not achieve their goals in a first year on the job market, we continue to support them as they continue to seek employment.”
The graduate program in NIU’s Department of English is unique in its blend of the full range of English studies, and its alumni go on to a wide variety of professional careers, ranging from writing and editorial positions to higher-education posts.
The same spirit of diversity can be found in opportunities for professional development. The department has a thriving English Graduate Student Association that plans a wide range of social and academic events.
Each spring semester, graduate students organize the Midwest Conference on Literature, Language and Media, which attracts presenters from across the nation. It also provides NIU students with opportunities to present their own work. Travel funding is available for students wishing to attend out-of-town conferences.
Additionally, graduate students have the opportunity to serve as editorial assistants for Style, an internationally recognized journal. And a large number of students receive teaching assistantships, which provide a tuition waiver, a stipend and invaluable professional experience.
Before starting their first classes, graduate assistants go through a week-long orientation program for First-Year Composition teaching led by Michael Day, Ellen Franklin and Eric Hoffman. Affectionately known as FYComp Bootcamp, the program provides state-of-the-art instruction in composition pedagogy that gives NIU students a tremendous employment advantage right from the beginning of their graduate education.
“So, from Day One,” Van Wienen adds, “English faculty members work to inspire their students, to demand much of them and to model professionalism.”
Date posted: March 4, 2014 | Author: Thomas Parisi | Comments Off on English Department curls up with Top 10 salute
NIU is seeking college students who are interested in environmental issues to work on research projects this summer with university scientists.
As many as eight non-NIU undergraduate students will be selected for participation, along with two or three NIU students who will serve as peer mentors. To be eligible to apply, students must have at least 60 earned credit hours, a minimum grade point average of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale and be citizens or permanent residents of the United States.
Selected students will receive free housing on NIU’s campus – and each will be paid a stipend of $4,657. All application materials must be received by 4:30 p.m. Friday, March 7.
The students will have opportunities to rub elbows with researchers at federal laboratories, participate in a number of regional workshops and share ideas on topics related to the environment, energy, the economy and ethics.
The 2014 REU program aims to operate an interdisciplinary research-based think tank, known as Operation ETank, to engage undergraduates on perspectives of sustainability as they work with scientists. The REU program will run from Monday, June 16, through Friday, Aug. 8.
Community college students and undergrads at any college studying biology, chemistry, engineering, environmental sciences and the earth sciences are especially encouraged to apply, although all student applications will be considered.
Even subtle features of language can have profound effects on how we think and feel, which in a legal context might affect legal decision-making, according to NIU postdoctoral student Andrew Sherrill and psychology professor Joe Magliano.
To be built on Goose Island in Chicago, the Digital Lab will bring together industry, academia and government partners. Obama envisions the Digital Lab as the nation’s flagship research institute for digital manufacturing – a world-class, first-of-its-kind manufacturing hub with the capabilities, innovation and collaboration necessary to transform American manufacturing.
The laboratory will be managed by University of Illinois-affiliated UI Labs, a Chicago-based research and commercialization collaborative. Its proposal reportedly won out over others from such states as Alabama, California and Massachusetts.
“There isn’t a better place in the country to host a manufacturing site like this than northern Illinois,” U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Channahon) said.
“With top research universities like NIU, access to key transportation and shipping hubs such as Rockford International Airport, and a solid manufacturing presence, it’s clear why Illinois won out. I was glad to join my colleagues in expressing our support for this site, and I look forward to seeing the advances in manufacturing and new jobs that will come with it.”
Although word of the competitive award spread to the media this past weekend, Obama made the announcement official this afternoon at the White House. The Digital Lab will receive a $70 million award from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to tackle manufacturing challenges of the DoD and industry.
Another $250 million in funding will come from state and private sources. That includes a cost-share commitment of at least $1.5 million from NIU over five years, for projects that align with CEET expertise. NIU’s investment will be matched dollar for dollar.
The Digital Lab will be an applied research institute. It will both develop and demonstrate digital manufacturing technologies and deploy and commercialize these technologies across key manufacturing industries.
Dean Promod Vohra
Nearly two dozen universities are involved in the initiative, ranging from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Texas-Austin. The project also boasts more than 40 industry partners, including General Electric, Rolls-Royce, Procter & Gamble, Dow, Lockheed Martin and Siemens.
“What a great honor to be part of such an initiative coming out of the White House,” NIU CEET Dean Promod Vohra said. “We remain committed to innovation, global competitiveness, manufacturing optimization and to the use of technology to advance manufacturing in the U.S. We will leverage our partnership with the manufacturing community in the region to quickly advance the objectives of the grant.”
Digital manufacturing is the application of computing and data analytics to improve manufacturing machines and factories.
Just this past fall, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology awarded a $2.4 million grant to NIU’s engineering college to develop tools used in 3-D printing. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3-D printing includes a group of new technologies that build up objects, usually by laying down many thin layers on top of each other.
Vohra noted that, with the Digital Lab announcement, his college has now received three major grants to focus on building partnerships with peer institutions, business and industry.
“NIU President Doug Baker has charged us all to build communities inside and outside of NIU,” Vohra said. “This project is a classic example of building an engineering community with NIU-CEET as an active participant in addressing manufacturing issues across the nation and in our region.”
“It will allow us to be even more engaged in the region in digital manufacturing, to augment existing collaborations, to develop new partnerships and to further engage faculty and students with industry as we develop a 21st-century global digital manufacturing supply chain,” she said.
Rigg said NIU will contribute to programs and projects relevant to CEET’s areas expertise as they become available. “We will be strategically partnering with targeted opportunities aligned with our collaborative potential,” she said.
CEET Associate Dean Mansour Tahernezhadisaid the college worked with UI Labs on the Digital Lab proposal. NIU has a long history in manufacturing training and outreach with ongoing programs addressing education and workforce development.
“Use of intelligent manufacturing equipment is severely limited if the manufacturers are not able to train or acquire skilled technicians to operate these sophisticated machines making very sophisticated parts,” Tahernezhadi said.
Building on the success of past outreach programs, including work with Rockford manufacturers, Tahernezhadi envisions CEET’s involvement with the Digital Lab extending to running certification courses for manufacturing employees and to specialized training for machining, laser-cladding and wind turbine technicians.
“Students will be involved in our efforts, so along the way we will be training the next generation of engineers – graduates equipped with the latest knowledge and cutting-edge skills and who have experience working with the region’s manufacturers,” Tahernezhadi said.
President Obama expects the Digital Lab’s applied research to create thousands of jobs in advanced manufacturing fields and make the U.S. economy more competitive, adding billions of dollars of value to the DoD and U.S. industrial base.
“This new Digital Lab has the potential to revolutionize the way the United States approaches manufacturing, and a major effort will be centered in Illinois,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said.
“Partners from across the state including the Quad Cities Manufacturing Laboratory, the Blue Waters Supercomputer at the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, Southern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University and the City of Chicago will be at the forefront of innovative, industry-driven research that will make America more competitive on the global stage. Illinois will undoubtedly benefit from the thousands of jobs created through this research.”
Date posted: February 25, 2014 | Author: Thomas Parisi | Comments Off on NIU tapped for role in $320 million Digital Lab
The AAAS is an international non-profit organization with a mission to promote cooperation among scientists, defend scientific freedom, encourage scientific responsibility and support scientific education and outreach. Every year, thousands of leading scientists, engineers, educators, policy makers and journalists from around the world gather at the annual meeting to discuss developments in science and technology.
NIU students were encouraged to apply to present their research or volunteer to work at the conference. Student researchers received feedback and critiques from judges and shared their work with the general public as well.
Senior biology major Evan Wittke presented his research on human liver cancer and the sometimes harmful effects of therapies such as chemotherapy.
“We are looking to discover more effective and targeted means of treating cancer that won’t cause patients to experience side effects like hair loss,” Wittke said.
Like all the other student presenters, Wittke spoke to scientists, non-scientists, journalists and even a group of high school students.
“I received a lot of interesting responses, and people were probably taken aback because they don’t really think of NIU as a cancer research institution,” Wittke said. “Contrary to that belief, there is a big interest on campus.”
The AAAS meeting featured a wide variety of informational sessions and workshops on topics ranging from science communication to science entrepreneurship.
“I got the most out of the professional development workshops geared toward improving the communication of science,” said Shannon McCarragher, a Ph.D. student in geography. “As scientists we often have a disconnect with getting information across to other scientists and people. Learning about how to deliver messages in an understandable and accessible way was very valuable to me.”
McCarragher presented a poster on her research, examining how the invasive Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) shrub spread to Nachusa Grasslands, a 3,100-acre natural prairie preserve south of Oregon, Ill. She also is studying the impact that the shrub is having on the local population of white oak trees.
Ellen Raimondi looks over her research poster during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Disa Patel, an NIU graduate student in public health, presented on her research, conducted in Indonesia last summer. The work assesses traffic-related exposure to air pollution.
“Some of the aspects of my research involve comparing the results of people who ride motorcycles, cars or trucks and analyzing their dose based on factors like gender and weight,” said Patel, who also volunteered to work at the conference.
Patel encourages other students to get involved in the AAAS meetings in the future and take advantage of opportunities to present research, network and learn more about developments in science.
“Volunteering was definitely worth it when it came to being able to see all the different seminars,” Patel said. “Students who aren’t really into the hard sciences should not be deterred from attending because there are many elements of social science that appeal to different crowds and interests.”
Other NIU students presenting research posters at the AAAS annual meeting included Eden Anderson, Steve Boi, Taylor Dupre, Alex Ekstrom, Nicholas Kirchner, Mercedes McWaters, Ashlyn Shellito, Josh Wardwell, Ellen Raimondi and Mai Thao.
The 19 article authors note that the country’s five endemic lemur families make up “the most threatened mammal group on Earth.” The situation has worsened following a 2009 political crisis that saw the ouster of the Malagasy president.
Irwin had a hand in writing both the Policy Forum article and the IUCN document.
“With the Science publication, we want to draw people’s attention to the urgency of the plan and its funding goals,” Irwin says. “Since the 2009 political crisis, the situation on the ground has been grim for the Malagasy people, but also for the lemurs, especially in terms of habitat loss. If things don’t turn around, lemur extinctions will start happening.”
A mouse lemur trapped to collect data on population density and health.
The lemurs’ habitat has been disappearing for the past 2,000 years, due to human activity, but the recent political turmoil has caused a flashpoint.
In its wake, international donors suspended funding for environmental programs. Conservation laws went unenforced. An illegal trade in precious hardwoods sprouted up, destroying lemur habitat. And as poverty increased, desperate Malagasy people burned more forests to grow crops; others turned to the poaching of lemurs for bushmeat. (Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 92 percent of its people living on less than $2 a day.)
According to the Policy Forum article in Science, remaining intact forest habitat was estimated to cover 92,200 kilometers in 2010, only 10 percent to 20 percent of Madagascar’s original forest cover and down from 106,600 kilometers in 1990. Much of this habitat is inadequately or not at all protected.
Of 101 lemur species, 94 percent are threatened. Irwin says that some have populations of fewer than 500. The ranks of one species, known as the Northern Sportive Lemur, has dwindled to fewer than 20 individuals.
“Extinctions could happen more quickly than you would think,” Irwin says.
The Policy Forum article notes lemurs play important ecological roles and are essential to maintaining the island’s unique forests, so their loss would likely trigger “extinction cascades.”
“That’s why we should be upset about the potential for any species to go extinct,” Irwin says. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. And they are linked ecologically to other species. For example, lemurs eat the fruits of hardwood trees and disperse their seeds. An extinction could reduce tree reproduction and impact other species that depend on those trees. One link in the chain leads to another.”
Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and chair of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, co-authored the article in Science. He says there have been encouraging signs in Madagascar since the recent election of a new president, former finance minister Hery Rajaonarimampianina.
“Lemurs, tortoises, rosewood and other natural resources in Madagascar have been collateral damage and victims of the political instability that has persisted for nearly five years,” Mittermeier said in a Bristol Zoo Gardens press release. “However, with the new democratically elected government of President Rajaonarimampianina, we have high hopes that this exploitation of natural resources will be curtailed in the near future.”
The Student Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and coordinated in the United States by the Institute of International Education, is a competitive fellowship program funding study, research or teaching English abroad at the post-baccalaureate or graduate level.
The Fulbright-Hayes Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program, funded by the Department of Education, provides grants to colleges and universities to support individual doctoral students who conduct research outside the U.S. in modern foreign languages and area studies for periods of six to 12 months.
The workshop will be broken down into three elements:
1:30 p.m. – Focusing on the U.S. Student Fulbright Program.
2:30 p.m. – Guidance on writing grant and fellowship proposals.
3:30 p.m. – Focusing on Department of Education Fulbright-Hayes
Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad funding opportunities.
Past participants in these programs have called them life-changing experiences. Come see for yourself what time abroad could mean for you, and for your future.
NIU President Doug Baker’s ambitious effort to offer peer or alumni mentors to all students is gaining big-time momentum.
At least three new mentoring initiatives have sprouted up this semester. Inventories are being conducted of the many existing programs. And Baker is expected to talk about NIU’s efforts to expand mentoring and internship opportunities Thursday, Feb. 20, during the 7 a.m. hour on WGN Radio and at 7 p.m. on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight.
“We have a clear vision and these are very attainable goals,” Baker said. “I’m excited because we are seeing a groundswell of support and interest from students, faculty and alumni.”
The expansions of mentoring and internship opportunities are key areas of Baker’s overarching goal of “student career success.” At his inauguration this past fall, Baker announced that NIU will strive to offer peer mentors to all university freshmen and tap into its 225,000 alumni to mentor sophomores, juniors and seniors.
Pilot alumni mentoring program
Douglas D. Baker
Toward that end, pilot alumni- and peer-mentoring programs have been launched in tandem this semester, with inventories being conducted of the many existing mentoring programs already offered on campus.
The pilot NIU Student-Alumni Mentoring Program is providing alumni mentors to nearly 70 students this spring. The aim is not to replace existing programs but to build upon them.
“We don’t want to change any existing programs; we just want to quantify what’s going on across campus and establish a central place for students to go if they’re seeking a mentor,” Matty said. “So ultimately we’ll be able to ensure that all NIU students have the same opportunities.”
Matty said interest in the pilot alumni-mentoring program has been high, and there are more mentors and mentees in the queue. The program primarily focuses on sophomores and juniors and is utilizing online, team, over-the-phone and one-on-one mentoring approaches. A kickoff event in January allowed alumni and students to meet in person.
“This pilot is special in the sense that it really taps into a great resource in our alumni,” Weldy said. “With a pilot project, you can work out any kinks before you enlarge the program, and we’ve already learned some things.”
Weldy added the benefits of mentoring will likely include improvements to student retention rates.
“Research shows that students are more likely to graduate when they build relationships on campus and are heavily engaged with peers and faculty and in university activities,” he said.
Impressively, 339 students last fall mentored 2,588 of their NIU peers in various peer-mentoring programs.
The peer-mentoring pilot consists of 18 mentors who are each “embedded into” a section of First-Year Composition, a freshman requirement. Each section has about 25 students.
The mentors, who were trained earlier this month, will attend one class per week, conduct study sessions with students and be available to students for out-of-class support.
“This is a great example of the president’s ‘Huskies unleashed’ concept,” said Elish-Piper, who took the lead organizing the peer-mentoring pilot. “It’s happening fast and furious. We came up with this plan and needed money – and we quickly got funding support from the offices of the provost and president.”
The mentoring committee will survey students participating in both the peer- and alumni-mentoring pilots and report its findings to the president in April, with recommendations for permanent programs to launch next fall.
“The new programs would provide additional opportunities for undeclared majors or students who are in majors where there hasn’t been the opportunity for peer or alumni mentoring,” Elish-Piper said.
“I strongly feel mentoring can make a real difference for students,” she added. “It also provides us with a chance to connect with alumni and give them opportunities to give back.”
‘Helping the next guy along’
Alumnus Matt Solomon, a novelist and contributing writer to the satire news site, The Onion, would agree. During his college days in the mid-1980s, he benefited from his participation in the Forensics Team and the mentoring of Judy Santacaterina, who still coaches the team today.
So when forensics recently launched its own alumni-mentoring program, Solomon got right on board.
For the past month, he has been mentoring Forensics Team President Kevin Bartelt, a junior communication major and aspiring comedy and entertainment writer.
“When I look back on my college career, the forensics program was so important in teaching me how to write and to stand up in front of an audience and express my ideas. It was really the single most formative educational activity I ever did,” Solomon said. “It was such a lifeline that I feel it’s my responsibility to help the next guy along. And it’s fun. I love talking about comedy with Kevin.”
Solomon and Bartelt had previously met in the fall 2012, when Solomon visited campus and conducted mock interviews with communication students. Bartelt was “interviewing” for a comedy-writing job.
“After the interview, he gave me his two cents on comedy writing and what I should be doing,” Bartelt said. “I remember leaving the room thinking, I have to talk to this guy again.”
Now as a mentor, Solomon is providing regular feedback to Bartelt on draft entries for a comedy blog the student writes.
“He tells me what he likes and gives me constructive feedback for what I can work on,” Bartelt said. “I’m really grateful. Working with Matt, who is such a talented alumnus, has made me feel more confident.”
Next on the horizon: internships
Alumni mentors are not expected to offer job opportunities to students. But President Baker has his sights set on stepping up internship programs as well.
Noting that the No. 1 predictor of student career success is whether students complete an internship during college, Baker has said he wants to offer internships to every student who wishes to have one. A consultant will be visiting campus late this semester to examine ways to expand existing offerings.
Northern Illinois University student Francois Lemery (right) talks with NIU President Douglas Baker (left) and Congressman Randy Hultgren during a visit to Fermilab. Photo: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab
Northern Illinois University and Fermilab have enjoyed a strong relationship in accelerator science for a long time. Fermilab operates state-of-the-art accelerator facilities that provide valuable hands-on experience and research opportunities for students from NIU.
The laboratory also has many world-expert accelerator scientists, engineers and technicians who share their savoir-faire on a daily basis and help educate students across a broad range of disciplines including beam physics, laser science, high-power radio-frequency to ultra-high vacuum techniques.
The accelerator science program at NIU was initiated a decade ago via joint appointments of scientists, who then work for both institutions. The symbiosis between the two institutions has led to the graduation of three Ph.D. students in the NIU accelerator science program based on research performed at Fermilab over the last three years.
The Advanced Superconducting Test Accelerator, currently under construction at Fermilab, will further this collaboration and foster new initiatives. NIU recently graduated the first student, Christopher Prokop, with research pertaining to ASTA. Three other NIU students are currently doing research at ASTA, investigating beam-driven wakefield acceleration, novel compact radiation sources and advanced phase-space manipulations.
Access to Fermilab’s facilities undoubtedly has elevated NIU’s profile and helps attract new students interested in accelerator science. It also has helped NIU attract extramural funding from the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and industry.
NIU President Douglas Baker, who assumed his position last summer, already has visited Fermilab twice and was impressed by the opportunities available to our students and faculty. He recently said that he is considering adding an NIU faculty position in accelerator science during the next few years, as NIU intends to be a major academic partner in the Illinois Accelerator Research Center.
IARC Director Bob Kephart recently visited NIU to discuss potential opportunities for collaboration. One avenue currently being pursued is NIU’s involvement in moving the AZero photoinjector at Fermilab to the IARC building in support of the development of high-current electron sources and accelerator-based compact light sources.
The NIU-Fermilab connection creates benefits beyond the State of Illinois. It advances basic research, accelerator R&D, education and industry. NIU is glad to be a part of this partnership.