For years, a distinctive summer characteristic at Hope College has been the bustling research program called SHARP (Summer Hope Academic Research Program). Hundreds of faculty and students and thousands of dollars in external and internal funding are employed every summer in every division of the college to search out new knowledge in the arts and humanities, social and natural sciences.
This summer will be no exception. Faculty and students will return to conduct on-campus research in mid-July, keeping a defining aspect of Hope intact but this time with Covid-19-deterring guidelines in place.
“SHARP has always been more than an internship or experience. It is a program enriched with student-faculty collaborations towards better understanding the world.” – Dr. Gerald Griffin
The decision to do so was recently made by Associate Provost Dr. Gerald Griffin, who oversees the college’s undergraduate research program. Approximately 115 faculty and 120 students are planning to perform summer research in 2020. Some have already started to do remote or field research. Others are waiting to start on campus on July 13.
“Our number one priority (in making the decision to conduct summer research in 2020) was the safety of our SHARP researchers and the safety of the Holland/Ottawa County community as a whole,” said Griffin, who is also a neuroscientist and virologist and has conducted multiple summer research projects at Hope. “We have worked hard to support and implement on-campus research this summer because our undergraduates are not visitors to the laboratory — they are the critical, essential personnel in conducting research activity here at Hope. Yes, our students get great experiences and skills during SHARP, but they are also a vital component of the critical research workforce at our institution. This is a distinctive of Hope: we are developing the research leaders of tomorrow by beginning their research careers in full today.”
Dr. Jennifer Hampton, associate professor of physics and chair of the department, is one of those 115 professors who is currently conducting research with Hope students. Her efforts with senior Forest Rulison and junior Kamaron Wilcox are individually rendered for the most part, each in their own homes working through data sets on material properties for new, alternative batteries. Fortunately, they gathered much of that data last summer in Hope’s Surface Lab. But come July 13, operations on Prussian blue analogs, the material Hampton and her students are researching, will be conducted in-person much to their joy and relief.
“Research is such an important part of the Hope experience for students,” she said. “I think as much as we can, in all areas of the college, we want to be able to keep those Hope things alive as much as possible. I think it’s important to try to do what we can.”
Since Wilcox and Rulison have conducted research with Hampton in previous summers, the student-researchers already has a solid foundation in the project. The group looks at the properties of Prussian blue analogs in terms of how they store and release charge as well as determining how much of that material’s charge can be made.
Remote research meant shifting their initial mode of operation to two virtual platforms: a fixed Google Meet (which is available to drop in and out of throughout the day to discuss questions and findings) and on Discord (historically a gaming server with additional communication options). “I’d never used Discord before, but they [Wilcox and Rulison] told me that using it makes us cool,” Hampton laughed.
Then there was the time a few weeks ago when Hampton got to see her students face to face, albeit briefly and safely. “I set up a socially distant picnic in a parking lot so I could hand off their lab notebooks. It was so nice to see them.”
If there is one silver lining to starting this year’s research remotely, Hampton says it is having the time to read and discuss existing research literature more deeply. Sometimes when researchers are in the thick of their work on campus, “those kinds of things tend to get pushed to the side,” she observed. “The chance to just dig into some of those papers in a little more careful way has been great.”
For Dr. Justin Shorb, assistant professor of chemistry, working with five students on two chemistry education projects has meant finding brave new ways to conduct research, too. One project is an evaluation of the design of online chemistry teaching materials, and the other uses eye-tracking data to determine a person’s level of understanding of chemistry knowledge.
Shorb uses Google Meet every day to talk with his student researchers, Caleb Bronner, Jonas Peterson, Micah Chrisman, Alaina Hempel, and Safia Hattab, a Michigan Space Grant Consortium Virtual Undergraduate Research Fellow. In addition, he has launched Basecamp, an online project management system, for the first time in his research. It is another way to keep connected both professionally and personally with his student-researchers while they are far apart.
“On Basecamp, I’ve set up an individual project for just me and each of my students for professional development project,” he says. “That’s a place where they can ask a question about their own personal growth or ask questions about how to approach research or even things that they’re just a little bit too embarrassed to bring up in front of the other people. So, we can talk about those things there. And I have them do journal reflections to think about what they’re learning, because this is not just about the research, it’s about the students experience and growth.”
The admittedly awkward and delayed start of summer research has been challenging but not overwhelming, Hampton and Shorb confide. Their nine to 10 weeks-worth of research may be unlike any other, but they, and all Hope faculty, are committed to giving Hope students the Hope research experience they desire and hope for . . . within realistic expectations.
“I think as much as we can, in all areas of the college, we want to be able to keep those Hope things alive as much as possible.” – Dr. Jennifer Hampton
“There’s been a big push to recognize that our research may not be as productive as usual, meaning we might not get those papers out, we might not get those publications done,” says Shorb. “But this is still one of three summers for our research students in their undergraduate career.”
Indeed, Griffin summarizes the necessity and enthusiasm for Hope summer research best in this way: “SHARP has always been more than an internship or experience. It is a program enriched with student-faculty collaborations towards better understanding the world.”