Mathematic and Aesthetic Artistry in Lego Form

Dr. Chuck Cusack, associate professor of mathematics and computer science, turns playthings into works of art embedded with his academic expertise. His Lego art show is now on display in the 602 Gallery at Holland Community Hospital through Tuesday, July 30.

“Mondriacci” by Dr. Chuck Cusack

Cusack’s works are unique and approachable — combining his love for combinatorics, the study of finite discrete structures, with algorithms and Legos, into creative abstract pieces of art that draw the viewer in with vivid colors and interesting patterns. He has been constructing Lego art for five years, and three of his works have appeared in ArtPrize — the international art competition held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His current exhibit at the 602 Gallery, organized by the Holland Friends of Art, reveals an artist who has evolved from a very rigid application of mathematics in his work, requiring everything he made to be a direct representation of a mathematical object, to one that has been inspired by Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers. The results have “loosened up” Cusack’s creativity as he now sometimes chooses the aesthetic over the mathematical, even using the underside of Legos to show off their unique artistic lines and order.

“Under” by Dr. Chuck Cusack

 “When I began, it was all about math and representing math using Lego. In a lot of my work people may not ever actually realize that there’s some structure to it other than the overall rectangles and colors,” Cusack says. “As people saw my art, particularly several people at ArtPrize a couple years ago, they would mention other artists’ names. I would look up those artists to see why people were mentioning these then. Mondrian is one that stuck out to me. I liked his work, but it was not very mathematical. But I thought, let’s just try something new and so I did a Mondrian-like Lego art and really liked it. I started doing ones that were more like Mondrian’s work but included some math in them.”

The works that Cusack creates do not come from a Lego kit found at your local retailer. Instead, his materials are methodically tracked down on the internet to meet his exact requirements. Between conceiving his idea, working out the math, ordering the Legos, sorting the Legos and finally creating the Lego art, Cusack says he can work up to 20 hours on a more complicated 13”x13” creation. For this second work in ArtPrize three years ago — a 6’x10’ Lego monstrosity that cost him “as much as a small new car” in materials — he cannot even begin to estimate its time value. What he can say though is that over the years, Cusack has purchased, handled and placed hundreds of thousands of Lego pieces. And he never uses glue.

“My works are vulnerable without glue but I prefer it that way,” he explains. “I’ve got to know exactly what I want to do and a lot of times I don’t and I want to pull them off. But more than anything, it seems wrong to use glue. It’s Lego. It’s meant to be removable.”

“Yes It Is” by Dr. Chuck Cusack

While there are 35 of Cusack’s works on display at Holland Community Hospital, several of his pieces are also hanging on Hope’s campus. His first ArtPrize piece called “Latin Square Squared” can be found outside the office of the dean for the natural and applied sciences in the Schaap Science Center. It is a 38”x38” grid constructed from many squares, each of different sizes and each of which is what is called a Latin square: every cell is a certain color (or shape or number) and every row and every column contains each color exactly once (like Sudoku). In VanderWerf Hall’s first floor computer science lab, Cusack takes a turn at participation art. “Yes It Is” is an orange-and-blue puzzle. To Hope fans, the colors alone may draw the viewer in. To computer science students, the work could pique their academic interest and, with a lot of work, increase their art collection, too. 

“If someone can decode the message in ‘Yes It Is,’ they get it,” Cusack says. “Decoding it requires a Vigenere cipher, shift cipher, understanding a magic square, debugging code, some sort of binary representation, and maybe a rotation here or there, not necessarily in that order.”

I hope the viewer will see that there is the beauty inherent in mathematics, and that serious art can be created using mathematical concepts and a very simple medium.”

In the 602 Gallery, those who see his art do not need any understanding of math or computer science to appreciate Cusack’s colorful and creative work, though knowing that a deeper level of artistic intention exists in them makes their creation that much more impressive. “I hope the viewer will see that there is the beauty inherent in mathematics, and that serious art can be created using mathematical concepts and a very simple medium,” he says. “And I hope that viewers will come away from the show inspired to create their own art using whatever medium they find the most interesting and taking inspiration from whatever they are passionate about.”

An artist reception will be held on Friday, July 12 from 6-8 p.m. in the lower level lobby of Holland Community Hospital (green entrance). Cusack’s exhibit will be on display until Tuesday, July 30. Gallery hours are 24/7.

Dance + Civil Engineering = Senior Andrew Niedbala

From his hometown of Sterling Heights, Michigan, to Hope, to Australia, to France, and then back to Holland, Michigan, Andrew Niedbala has been dancing his way around the world for a few years now as a dance major. But dance is not the only thing this senior does. He also majors in civil engineering.

It’s an academic combination rarely put together. One an art form, the other an applied science. But Niedbala couldn’t see doing one without the other. As a double major in each, he pursues two creative passions and taps into each side of his brain. And as he does, in many ways, his two seemingly-opposite pursuits become more similar than different.

“They are both creative fields and force you to deal with the physical reality of the things around you and within you.”

“Both fields ask you to solve problems and there is a lot of gray area,” Niedbala says. “However, they feed off of each other very nicely, allowing creativity from dance’s freedom into engineering and the more concrete problem-solving of engineering into dance. They are both creative fields and force you to deal with the physical reality of the things around you and within you.”

Niedbala landed at Hope College in the fall of 2015 planning to major only in engineering while continuing to feed his love for dance through co-curricular opportunities. “That’s the nice thing about Hope,” he says. “Even if you don’t major or minor in something, you can still take those classes.”

The switch from a single major to a double major happened about halfway through his college career. Being involved in Strike Time Dance Co. — Hope’s interactive performance group for children — and H-2 Dance Co. — Hope’s pre-professional repertory group — Niedbala began to face a reality he didn’t initially see coming. He wanted more from dance than he was getting solely as an engineering major. Performing for children created a new passion that hadn’t existed to him before.

In Strike Time

“There is something so genuine about performing for a young audience,” Niedbala says. “With an audience familiar with dance, there are expectations of what the art is supposed to look like, but with children, you can just move for movement’s sake and witness the wonder in their eyes.”

In Dance 45

Niedbala’s favorite dance performance, though, came while performing in Dance 45 this past spring. In “Chair Study Two,” choreographed by Hope dance professor Linda Graham, he was challenged and inspired. The piece is performed while moving on or around two chairs in complete unison and interaction with a partner.  The nuanced and stimulating artistry in this piece captivated Niedbala as he worked to perfect connected movement, making two bodies seem unified and cohesive in opposite chairs.

As a result of all his dance world exposure and dedication (he also performed with Strike Time in Australia), Niedbala has proved himself in the dance department to be immensely gifted to his craft.

Andrew celebrates the opportunity to take in knowledge and ways of knowing,” says dance professor Nicki Flinn. “His openness and inquiry is evident in all he does. Andrew’s work ethic and drive to make connections among subject areas, while sharing different perspectives, makes teaching and learning with him fun.”

Aside from his dance companies and dance classes, Niedbala has another major project on the other side of campus in the engineering department. As a civil engineering major, he has been working on his senior project which involves creating systems of energy optimization in a 1940s house in Coldwater, Michigan.

This Coldwater home where Niedbala worked on his senior engineering project.

Civil engineers conceive, design, build, supervise, operate, construct, and maintain infrastructure projects and systems in the public and private sector. The goal then of Niedbala’s project was to make the Coldwater house more energy efficient without changing the structure of the home so as to keep its historical build and character. From working with solar panels to geothermal energy, Niedbala and his group have offered solutions to make this house more efficient and sustainable as possible.

Niedbala, right, and his civil engineering team in Coldwater

Andrew is very easy-going but at the same time a very hard worker,” says Dr. Courtney Peckens, assistant professor of engineering. “It is a lot of work to balance two majors, especially with one of them being engineering, but he makes it look relatively easy.”

And Peckens was often reminded that Niedbala was fully engaged in both. How?

“One of the things that I will remember most about Andrew is that he always carries around a rather large container of water which probably holds at least 30 ounces,” she recalls. “Maybe this is a typical thing for dancers, but it is a fairly unique accessory for engineers. I taught him every day for two years and don’t think that I ever saw him without the same container.”

After graduation on May 5, Niedbala is excited to start studying for the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam in the fall as well as gearing up for summer dance performances in France as part of the Paris May term with Hope College. More auditions of the dancing kind will follow in the near future. As for the engineering kind, Niedbala says he’ll wait and see. Right now, he is eager to set out into the “real” world and engineer a career in dance.

Speaking Spanish for the Community

“Me llamo Kelly. ¿Cuál es su nombre?”

“Soy Juan.”

“¿Juan, cómo está usted?”

“No tan bien.”

“Oh, lo siento, ¿qué pasó?

Junior Spanish and international studies double major Kelly Fuhs is not shy, but she is not forcefully bold either. Rather, she is calmly outgoing, and that trait has helped her use a second language in a meaningful way for a relatively new class. Complete strangers have become new friends to Fuhs as she has served others with Spanish outside of Hope’s campus.

Junior Kelly Fuhs at the Community Kitchen

Enrolled in “Spanish for the Community” and serving at the Community Kitchen Free Lunch program hosted by Community Action House at Hope-neighbor Western Theological Seminary, Fuhs recently introduced herself to a middle-aged gentleman named Juan and asked about his day. It was not going well, Juan said. Fuhs’ eyes and voice conveyed concern, and she gently asked Juan why, sliding easily into a chair next to him to begin a Spanish conversation with the Holland resident who was preparing to eat his lunch.  

Juan did most of the talking so Fuhs listened and listened. Often she would nod; occasionally she would interject. When the conversation began to wane, she asked Juan if she could pray for him.

,” he said.

Oh Dios, ayuda a Juan….” Fuhs started.

“Spanish for the Community” is a 300-level course created and offered by Dr. Berta Carrasco, assistant professor of Spanish, for its second time ever.  It gives students the opportunity to apply their Spanish skills in various interpersonal and organizational ways with Holland-area charitable organizations like the Community Kitchen, Community Action House, the Holland Free Health Clinic, and Holland Community Health Clinic. In doing so, students gain enhanced language ability, confidence and a sense of purpose.

“Basically, I came in thinking I was going to be serving food,” Fuhs explains. “But since there was a lot of volunteers to do that already, I help with translating menus and the code of conduct policies in Spanish. But most of the time, I just come in and talk to people and hear about their days and their lives and just kind of go from table to table listening to people.”

So, why is that meaningful for Fuhs?

“Every time I walk into this place, I’m welcomed,” says Fuhs, who hopes to work for a non-profit organization someday. “Everyone treats me like family and they’re like family as well. They all want to talk. Getting to sit down and hear about their lives and about their struggles and joys and just getting to pray with them and really have that small time to experience life with them, it’s an honor honestly. People just want to be heard. I didn’t come in here thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to save people.’ I have a lot to learn from them.”

Dr. Berta Carrasco

Carrasco created the class for students like Fuhs because she wanted to fill a gap. While there are plenty of Spanish offerings in literature and culture in the Hope curriculum, there was not a practical offering that engaged Hope students in the Holland community, which is 38% Latino. “Our courses are dynamic, but we needed a class that goes into the community,” the professor says.

Students spend the first five weeks of the semester in the classroom discussing (always in Spanish) what it means to serve, why they want to serve, how complicated and difficult it can be. They also learn about interpersonal communication styles in the Latino culture, how to be cognizant of direct vs indirect communication, such as how to “read” body language and vocal tones. Then, for the rest of the semester, for six hours a week, they speak Spanish in the community.

“Our students have worked for years on their Spanish,” the professor says, “and with this class, they can use it immediately outside the classroom. They have ways to use a tool they’ve worked really hard on right now for good use.”

“Their job is not writing a lot of academic papers but that doesn’t mean this class is not rigorous,” Carrasco says. “It’s rigorous in a different sense. This requires students to go outside of the box and be okay with being uncomfortable, be okay with mistakes and be okay with someone who is feeling great, and someone who is not.”

“I love taking literature classes and learning more about the technique of the language, but there’s something really special about being able to take a class to learn skills about how to communicate with people within the culture and then interact and actually do it,” Fuhs confirms.

Rebekah Rainwater, right, and a client of the Holland Free Clinic.

Senior classmate Rebekah Rainwater concurs. She is a Spanish major on a pre-physical therapy track and as such, she is grateful for learning how to succeed in intercultural communication, especially since she hopes to work in health-care settings with a wide range cultures, races and socioeconomic statuses.

“Working at the Holland Free Health Clinic for this class has showed me how to accommodate for those patients who do not speak English, who cannot read, and who have had little to no formal education,” Rainwater says.  “As a future health care provider, I will need to continue to practice the skills which I am developing now in order to successfully serve my patients.”

With those words, Carrasco knows her teaching objectives are being met. She wants her students to know that their language skills are useful now, not just some nebulous time out in the future and not just away from campus on a study abroad trip.

“Our students have worked for years on their Spanish,” the professor says, “and with this class, they can use it immediately outside the classroom. They have ways to use a tool they’ve worked really hard on right now for good use.”

Memory and Music: Andrew Le’s Sabbatical Story

When Dr. Andrew Le says he spent his fall 2018 sabbatical “learning” a series of piano pieces, what he really means is that he memorized them.

“It’s tradition in not just classical music but especially in solo piano playing that one presents the music from memory,” said Le, associate professor of music. “Ultimately memorization helps me to communicate my music without a barrier — that barrier being the score, the music score in front of me. There’s nothing between me and the piano, and there’s nothing between the piano and the audience.”

So, what music did he learn (read: memorize), exactly? Well, there’s Book 1 of Claude Debussy’s Préludes, which he learned — from the opening notes to the end of the score some 50 minutes later — and performed in Madrid. And then slightly embarrassed that he had played only French music while in Spain and wanting to remedy the faux pas, he learned a piano suite, Goyescas, by Spanish composer Enrique Granados. Plus, he learned works by Eddie Mora and the Piano Concerto in G major by Maurice Ravel.

All told, Le memorized more than 80 minutes of music, some of which he says are among the most technically difficult pieces for the piano. Two in particular — the pieces by Granados and Ravel — he called “disorienting” for a pianist.

Granados’ Goyescas, Le said, “turned out to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever played in my life. It’s really thick — the textures are thick, and it almost sounds at times that it’s meant to be played with three or four hands, not just two. To transcend the technical difficulties to make it sound easy was quite the challenge.

“It was almost as if Granados didn’t care about how the pianist would feel,” he continued. “It was just all about the music and what it would take to write music that rapturous, even if it meant sounding like it had to be played with four hands.”

And Ravel? “His imagination and soundscape stretched the limits of what people at the time thought instruments could do,” Le said. “This concerto has a lot of interesting textures and technical challenges that are not just hard to play but also make it an exciting visual performance. ”

Plus, at 22 minutes long, the piece stretches the performer’s focus and endurance.

“Ultimately memorization helps me to communicate my music without a barrier — that barrier being the score, the music score in front of me. There’s nothing between me and the piano, and there’s nothing between the piano and the audience.”

In addition to his chamber and solo performances in Madrid, Le also performed in Arlington, Texas, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. But he says the most nerve-wracking of his performances was one he gave after his sabbatical, right here at Hope College, on January 12, 2019.

Listen to Dr. Le’s January 12 recital:

Performing in front of his students, colleagues and administrators — the people who look up to him and rely on him — makes him more nervous than other performances. They’re also the most special: “I get to play in a place I love for people I love, and in a place where I’m comfortable being myself and being one with Christ by way of performing on stage,” he said.

One element of the January 12 performance made it particularly impactful. While introducing his pieces, Le felt spontaneously compelled to dedicate his performance of Ravel in memory of Jonathan Hagood. Hagood died on September 18, 2018; at the time, he was serving as chair of the music department.

“The day I learned that Jonathan passed away, I was deeply lost,” Le said. “The only thing that gave me remote comfort was to go to the piano and play the second movement of this concerto. It has always been to me the most beautiful thing ever written, so I just played it over and over that day. I think of Dr. Hagood every time I play this piece, so I dedicated the performance in memory of him, and that gave me the strength to get through it, the focus and the purpose.”

In the end, Le says the entire sabbatical is “a gift that I don’t take for granted.”

In addition to his performances, Le also recorded and released an album of Debussy’s complete Etudes for solo piano, timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

In the end, Le says the entire sabbatical is “a gift that I don’t take for granted.” Not only does he have the chance to learn and perform at an unusually productive level, but it refreshes and rejuvenates him for the daily work that he loves so much.

“Teaching is incredibly important to me,” he said. “Being able to share my talents and proffer what I can to the next generation of Christians and students and piano students and Christian piano students — such gifts are to be shared. I can’t keep them to myself.”

Researching and Revealing the Art of Nomads

In Hope College’s Kruizenga Art Museum, a current exhibit asks an unapologetic and perhaps overwhelming question: What exactly is art?

Is art aesthetically-pleasing work meant to only be seen and not touched? Must it hang on a wall or stand on a pedestal? Or, can art be practical, painstakingly-created pieces made for everyday use?

And who decides?

Once Were Nomads,” on display through May 11, begs reflection on those questions. And here’s a spoiler alert: A life-size, fiberglass camel stands at the center of the exhibit offering insights toward some answers.The scholarly, collective and lengthy work of Charles Mason, Dr. Debra Swanson and junior art major Caleigh White during the summer of 2018 resulted in the winter showcase of “Once Were Nomads.” The exhibit invites viewers to look at the everyday, artistic textiles of the Baluch people, a nomadic tribe from Baluchistan — an area that straddles the modern-day borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran — and consider an expanded, moving reality of art.

The harsh, Middle East region of the Baluch people is where those artisans create beautiful works of art that are constantly on the go. Featured in “Once Were Nomads,” domestic items like a bag used for salt storage, or rugs made for sitting or mealtime or praying, or a camel’s “dress” for a wedding ceremony allow museum-goers to marvel at the Baluch’s ongoing creativity and effort.

“In many cultures of the world, art is literally woven into the fabric of everyday life.”

“In Western cultures, we tend to think of art as being painting and drawing and sculpture and photography, but in many cultures of the world, art is literally woven into the fabric of everyday life,” says Mason, the Margaret Feldmann Kruizenga curator of the KAM.

For centuries prior to this one, the Baluch had depended upon various lightweight textiles (lighter than wooden furniture anyway) to sustain and create their households as they moved their flocks of sheep and goats freely within the region. Since the beginning of the 21st century, political and economic pressures have limited that movement and now many Baluch people are confined to “reservations” in Baluchistan. Their original ways of life have been threatened,  and it turns out, scholars do not know that much about them.

“The Baluch people in general have not really been studied and now their lifestyles are changing. As a person who teaches cultural anthropology, this was very interesting to me, and I wanted my students to learn about them too. In doing so, I also wanted them to think a little bit more about what makes art art?” says Swanson, professor of sociology. “So, when Charles said, ‘I have works of art from this group of people who haven’t been studied very much,’ I said, ‘Well, maybe we could do an exhibit as both an artistic and anthropology project.’”

Debra Swanson, left, Caleigh White, center, and Charles Mason, right, and textiles for “Once Were Nomads.”

The Baluch pieces featured in the KAM were donated or loaned to the college thanks to Mason’s friendship with and request to art collectors, Verne and Paula Trinoskey of Eureka, California. White applied for and was awarded a Borgeson grant to begin work with Swanson on the project during the summer of 2018 and in the fall of 2018, White also applied for and was awarded a Dryfhout internship to finish the exhibit with Mason.

A summer trip to Washington, DC and the Textile Museum at George Washington University, as well as at the Smithsonian, helped Swanson and White see how other museums produce anthropological art exhibits. Once back at Hope, the three went about the work of figuring out how the art exhibit in the KAM would tell the anthropological story of the Baluch people. White was especially instrumental in researching more about the Baluch way of life to present on interpretative plaques as well as a 15-minute video that shows more than words can tell about how the textiles fit into the Baluch culture.

“We knew we had to ask and reflect on questions like, What is nomadism? What is the Baluchistan landscape like? The geography of the desert or valley? How do they live? Why do they create such beautiful things?” reflects White. “They have a ground-level lifestyle, and they make it comfortable for themselves through the use of textiles. Amazing textiles.

“I admit I never really appreciated rugs before I looked at these,” White continues. “My favorite part about art is the concepts behind everything and seeing the concepts behind the motifs woven into the rugs is the most important part. We have a whole section about the tree of life, for example. That’s why I really liked working on this project. The concepts and their creation in the rugs are amazing.”

Baluch textiles filled the KAM conference room last summer before filling the KAM walls this winter. Mason and White would carefully select and consider how every piece could be displayed. Flat items like rugs and bags and clothing could easily hang on walls, but how would they display the loopy, floppy essence of the ceremonial animal trappings?

That’s where the KAM-el (get it?!) comes in.

“We were looking at those trappings and we knew they wouldn’t hang that well on a wall and people wouldn’t really get a sense of how they worked on an animal,” says Mason. “So, I was looking around online and actually found a place that had a great model camel. So I ordered it.”

And it looks pretty good all dressed up with no place to go. For now anyway. Eventually, Mason would love to see KAM-el in the Van Wylen Library or the Schaap Science Center or any other academic location where it can easily display its fine-fitting Baluch art. Whenever and wherever it does, KAM-el will continue to educate and remind the Hope community about the definition of art for people who once were nomads.

Other examples of Baluch art in “Once Were Nomads”

Pile rug close-up with stylized floral lattice design. Wool. Late 19th C.
Vanity bag. Wool. Early 20th C.
KAM-el in full dress.
Baluch tunic.
Grain bag. Wool, goat hair, shells. Early 20th C.

 

A Major Addition

It all started with one course offering — Introduction to Neuroscience — in 2001. Then, due to that class’ popularity, more and various courses were presented, and a neuroscience minor was born in 2004. Now, after 19 years to “grow up,” a full-fledged neuroscience major will be offered at Hope College starting with the 2019-20 academic year. The growth of those neuroscience offerings, along with student interest, are due in no small part to the work of the program’s first parent, founding director Dr. Leah Chase, and now its adoptive and new leader, Dr. Gerald Griffin.

Dr. Gerald Griffin and Dr. Leah Chase

The way one neuroscience class resulted in an eventual major is not surprising, given Hope’s solid scientific reputation, yet adding a new major program was not initially the plan, Chase says.  The plan was to offer that one class to employ Chase’s teaching know-how (she’s an associate professor of both biology and chemistry) and research specialty (on neurotransmitter systems) while satisfying expressed interest that Hope students were voicing.

“It was a long journey, but there were important landmarks along the way.”

“To be perfectly honest, back then a major wasn’t even the goal,” says Chase. “The first goal was to offer the neuroscience class here with a supporting lab to go with it. We got the grant from NSF (National Science Foundation) to create that lab and from there we weren’t sure yet where it would go.”

Student interest remained strong, and with the 2015 faculty additions of Griffin, associate professor of biology and psychology, and Dr. Andrew Gall, assistant professor of psychology, a new major in neuroscience made every sense to add to the list of Hope’s 80-plus majors, minors and pre-professional programs.

“It was a long journey, but there were important landmarks along the way,” says Chase. “Getting Gerald and Andy to Hope was really important, so was having dedicated neuroscience lab space (in the Schaap Science Center) and getting a grant from HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) which included support for the development of the neuroscience minor. All of that made going from a minor to a major at this time seem like the perfect fit.”

Neuroscience — the study of the brain and nervous system to better understand human behavior — naturally blends the academic worlds of biology, chemistry and psychology. At Hope though, it’s more than that. Students who major in neuroscience also must select from a list of classes in engineering, computer science, physics, mathematics and philosophy for a total of 63 to 67 credits. With such a breadth of requirements across several disciplines, the neuroscience major leans heavily into Hope’s liberal arts tradition.

“We spent a long time thinking about how we would design this major,” says Chase, who has served on the governing board of Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience and currently serves as vice president of the Kenneth H. Campbell Foundation for Neurological Research. “All of us were sitting there looking at other programs, and we wanted to be sure two things happened with ours. One, it had to fit well with national norms for neuroscience study and, two, it had to have a very unique Hope-College stamp on it.”

Neuroscience naturally blends the academic worlds of biology, chemistry and psychology. At Hope though, it’s more than that.

Signs that the new neuroscience major has the Hope College mark written all over it will be seen as neuroscience students become active in programs such as Memory and Music — helping patients with dementia augment memories by playing music from earlier decades. Hope’s Brain Days and Brain Awareness Week teaches elementary students about neuroscience fundamentals through a science fair.  Taking classes like Philosophy of Science or Medical Ethics will provide a holistic preparation that produces ethically-rooted scientists. Exploring phantom limb pain with Dr. Katharine Polasek in Hope’s engineering department, or discovering the biomarkers of apathy in patients with Alzheimer’s disease with Dr. Emilie Dykstra Goris in Hope’s nursing department is yet another way neuroscience “will have the kind of interesting overlaps that only Hope can provide,” 

Of course, research opportunities — another Hope trademark — will begin as early as students’ Introduction to Neuroscience course and continue through advanced neuroscience core courses as well. In the neuroscience capstone course, senior students will write an original grant proposal, conduct an original research study, and write a complete journal-style research manuscript.

While more than 50 students are enrolled in neuroscience introduction classes each semester, about 30 are currently either neuroscience composite majors or minors. With the addition of an official major now, Griffin sees more growth on the horizon, and he’s ready for making his leadership priorities ones of community- and future-building.

“My first big focus will be to create a neuroscience community amongst our students now that we have a major,” says Griffin who, in January 2019, was named an Emerging Scholar by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. “In the past, our students who were (neuroscience) minors had been majors in the biology or chemistry or psychology or other departments. Now they’ll be in this new major and we’ll work on that. . .  We’re also open to expanding opportunities There’s a whole burgeoning field of neuro-economics, for example, which is the neuroscience of decision-making. That could be a great opportunity. Basically, we’ll keep looking at ways to help our neuroscience students use their knowledge for a greater good.”

A Vital Partnership Becomes Vitalis

Purchasing a nursing textbook with required, additional materials can be costly at times. Realizing that students might be hard pressed to afford the extras that come with certain books and existing programs on the market, the Hope College nursing department decided to look for a cheaper way to provide a more basic but meaningful version of those educational necessities.

And they walked right across Hope’s Van Andel Plaza, located between the Schaap Science Center and VanderWerf Hall, to find their answer.

A new computer software program has been developed by two faculty members and four students of the Hope College computer science department, housed in VanderWerf, to allow the tracking and simulation of electronic medical records by students and faculty in the Hope College nursing department in lab experiences in Schaap. The digital platform, Vitalis, is the result. It simulates professional medical record-taking methods and aesthetics for Hope nursing students so that “real-world” experience can be realized at little cost.

In teaming up, the two departments created an educational experience that was mutually beneficial for students studying both majors.

Four of the five Vitalis student-creators at a poster presentation, left to right, Dane Linsky, Dennis Towns, Phil Caris, and Haoming Zhang

With prices for books and other expenses rising every year, Dr. Vicki Voskuil, assistant professor of nursing, and Trish Kragt, director of nursing laboratories, had been searching for some time for a way to mimic digital medical records for their lab courses in a cost-effective way.

Dr. Vicki Voskuil, associate professor of nursing

“We recognized the need within the last two or three years that while they [the students] have been doing narrative documentation in our classes, they really needed the computer piece to be able to electronically record [for the agencies],” Voskuil says.

The software development project was advertised to computer science students as one of the summer opportunities available in the computer science department’s Hope Software Institute. HSI provides rich, real-world software development experience to students interested in pursuing a career in industry as software developers. Three Hope students — senior Phil Caris, senior Dennis Towns and junior Jori Gelbaugh — were selected in the summer of 2018 to work alongside Dr. Ryan McFall and Dr. Michael Jipping, both professors of computer science at Hope.

The computer science students on the project recognized the privilege they had working with the faculty and used it as a growing, developing, and learning experience.

“It was my first time creating software that wasn’t in the classroom setting and interfacing with clients (the nursing department) gauging out what they want with those first initial steps of planning where you learn how the process usually starts,” Towns said.

Dr. Ryan McFall, professor of computer science

Not only was Vitalis a learning curve for students but also for the faculty leading the project. “Honestly, the technology we chose I didn’t really know either, and I took it as an opportunity to learn that as well,” says McFall.

The computer science students on the project recognized the privilege they had working with the faculty and used it as a growing, developing, and learning experience. “It helped a lot to see [Dr. McFall] who we all look up to, who is very clearly a lot smarter than us, struggling sometimes. [We realized] he doesn’t always know everything and that knocked us down a peg, too,” Caris said.

Sophomore nursing student Johanna Emmanuel takes vital on a clinical mannequin and records them using Vitalis.

The heft and complexity of it all meant Vitalis got created, tested, and recreated often. Every two weeks, those working on the project would meet with Voskuil and Kragt and others in the nursing department to hear critiques, suggestions as well as approvals. In these meetings, both departments had trouble communicating about the content required on both ends because of the jargon used on either side of the project. In the end, the two groups were able to bridge their communication gap by finding ways to share terminology.

Summer 2018 has come and gone, but the project is a continuous work in progress. In fall 2018, the project was handed off to a group of capstone students. Caris and Towns were able to continue on with additional teammates, senior Haoming Zhang and senior Dane Linsky. In spring of 2019, the project is still evolving and improving.

“One of the reasons we like these projects is because it’s what most people who are developing software have to do once they get out of college,” said McFall.

It’s been applicable for every job I’ve been called in to interview for, Phil Caris said.

Overall, the students and faculty from both departments agreed that developing Vitalis was a positive and beneficial experience. It’s been applicable for every job I’ve been called in to interview for, Caris said. These programs truly do create an experience for the student, preparing them for their “real world” opportunities.

“It was good to experience the workflow of a regular software development process,” said Zhang.

From the nursing department’s perspective, programming with the computer science department is only the beginning of a resourceful partnership. With medical records almost strictly digitized, the need for college nursing software has become vital.

Vitalis could become something that gets used in more than just our school,” Voskuil said. “It is pretty unique.”

They’ll Always Have Paris

Left to right, Michaela Stock, Dr. Natalie Dykstra, Sarah Lundy

A small but reputable library in Paris now has a new and meaningful relationship with a small but reputable liberal arts college in the U.S. thanks to a Hope English professor and her two research students.

For two and a half weeks during the summer of 2018, Dr. Natalie Dykstra, senior Sarah Lundy and junior Michaela Stock worked at and established a partnership with the American Library in Paris. Their research and scholarship not only fed their own intellectual curiosity about historical stories and archival work, it also supplied the library with a useful resource as well.

Dykstra tapped Stock and Lundy to join her in France as part of a Hope’s Paris Stories project, an interdisciplinary Grand Challenges program funded by the Mellon Foundation. Focused on art, literature, history and senior seminar course work, Paris Stories is also co-directed by Dr. Lauren Janes of the history department and Dr. Heidi Kraus of the art department who lead a May Term to Paris each spring and teach Francophile courses, along with Dykstra, back at Hope during the academic year.

So it was then under Dykstra’s guidance that Lundy and Stock took on their own extensive archival endeavor regarding Nadia Boulanger.

At the American Library in Paris, though, Dykstra helped launch Lundy and Stock into a world of research that the professor knows well. Dykstra’s own writing has required extensive archival work; for her 2012 book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, and currently for her upcoming biography of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner.  So it was then under Dykstra’s guidance that Lundy and Stock took on their own extensive archival endeavor regarding Nadia Boulanger, a mid-20th century French music teacher and composer who left a large collection of records, concert programs, sheet music and inscribed books to the American Library in Paris.

Sarah Lundy in the American Library in Paris

“When we went in, we had no firm idea of what project we would be doing,” says Lundy, a history and French double major. “It was very flexible, and we started with plans to just see what the library needed us to do.”

When they discovered that the library had a substantive special collection of artifacts associated with Boulanger that needed a detailed finding aid, the trio knew they were onto something good.

‘Since we’re all kind of art and history nerds, we were pretty excited,” exclaims Stock, a recording arts major with French and art history minors. “Sarah and I went page by page through about 42 [items] Nadia left and transcribed both the French and English inscriptions from Nadia and from her friends.”

“In essence,” Stock continues, “it was a lot of compiling of the smaller stories we found into a bigger picture of what the American Library in Paris means in the story of Nadia Boulanger. And that story also had a greater context to the history of France and in World War II. So, it’s one of those things that history does: You ask one question, and you can get a million answers.”The American Library in Paris was established in 1920 by the American Library Association with a couple thousand English language books that had been sent to American soldiers during World War I. That founding spirit is reflected in its motto: “Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux: After the darkness of war, the light of books.”

Looking out the door of the American Library in Paris

Over the years, a who’s who of American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, have graced the library’s rooms, and it became a cultural center as much as a repository of books used by French nationals to teach English to their students. Today, the library — the largest English-language lending library on the European continent and located not far from the Eiffel Tower — has over 100,000 books in its holdings.

About Boulanger, Lundy and Stock learned much and grew to appreciate their protagonist’s high regard as a female composer and educator in France and beyond. Educated at the Paris Conservatory in the early 1900s, Boulanger later taught both American and European students, such as Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky. She also became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

Beyond the finding aid, the duo created a website about their archival work and partnership with the American Library in Paris.

For Lundy and Stock, their Paris experience went beyond factual understanding and fostered intellectual and personal growth.

“Some of the librarians (at the American Library in Paris) said to me toward the end of our stay, ‘Where did you get these students? They are great!’,” remembers Dykstra. “I could not have been prouder of the work that they did. They arrived every morning just as the library was opening up and they stayed until closing. I think their work ethic was just remarkable.

“There’s nothing I enjoy more than having a project like this with our students,” Dykstra continued. “For me, it pushes me as a teacher, as a writer, as a biographer. I think faculty grow as much as students do having these experiences. I’m very grateful to the Grand Challenges program for providing us with the funding so we could make this relationship with the library possible. I’m also grateful to my Paris Stories partners, Lauren Janes and Heidi Kraus.”

For Lundy and Stock, their Paris experience went beyond factual understanding and fostered intellectual and personal growth.

“I love stories. I think it’s the thing that makes me love history,” explains Lundy. “But having so many different cultures and people and perspectives coming together in our Nadia research was really eye-opening. To have a hands-on experience where you’re immersed in that narrative and can see even a fraction of a person’s and of a history’s timeline is something that makes me say, ‘This isn’t all of it but it’s an important part of the overall story.’ Then I think, what does that say about our culture here or a different topic historically where one person’s biography or a narrative is written. There’s so many ways you can apply what we learned even though it was in Paris.”

Michaela Stock in the American Library in Paris

“I have dreamed of living and working and being in Paris for almost my entire life,” adds Stock. “I felt I was my fullest, best self over there, and I think I’ve carried that experience home. This (fall) semester has been by far the best I’ve ever had and I highly attribute that to finding myself in Paris and figuring it out alongside mentors, both student and professor. So for me, it was definitely an internal surge of growth that I will never forget.”

Nor will The American Library in Paris. The work that the Hope trio completed, and the relationship they started, will have a life there for years to come. Dykstra hopes to continue with a second team of students in Paris in May 2019. Hope College is now part of the ongoing story that the American Library in Paris gets to tell about itself in the run-up to its 100th anniversary in 2020. And of course, the American Library in Paris now part of Hope’s narrative, too.

The Economics Lessons of Smart Justice Research

Economists are uniquely suited to study a variety of subjects where tradeoffs are unavoidable and consequences are complex. Two such areas of unique econometric study are related to the law and the criminal justice system. Within those subjects, curious economists like Dr. Sarah Estelle, associate professor of economics at Hope and the Ruch Faculty Fellow, are able to ask and find answers to causal, cost-benefit questions such as this:

Do harsher criminal sentences cause more or less crime?

Dr. Sarah Estelle, associate professor of economics and Ruch Faculty Fellow

A recent study completed by Estelle and former Hope colleague Dr. David Phillips, now of the University of Notre Dame, found harsher sentences do not always reduce recidivism. Their findings, published in the Journal of Public Economics, used a massive Michigan Department of Corrections data set on two  non-violent felonies committed by adults in the state — operating while intoxicated (OWI) and first-degree retail fraud. Since those two crimes are treated much the same in terms of the state’s sentencing guidelines, Estelle and Phillips wanted to measure the effect of offenders’ sentences on their future criminal activity.

After extensive study, they found harsher sentences reduce future felonies committed by shoplifters but not by drunk drivers.

“With the recent call for ‘smart justice,’ as opposed to the ‘tough on crime’ mantra of politicians of the 1990s, people are understanding that there are sometime tradeoffs between public safety and the public budget,” says Estelle, who is also the founding director of Hope’s Markets & Morality student organization. “Putting someone in prison in Michigan costs a hundred dollars a day. And that’s just the cost to the state. What about other costs to society such as the effect on a child’s development of an absent parent or the loss of income and stability for a family? We need to consider more than a state’s budget when assessing the costs of incarcerating people or, alternatively, not incarcerating them.”

“The ultimate question would be this: What would perfectly balance all of the consequences of a harsher versus more lenient sentence for society, for the offender, for the offender’s family, for the public budget? To really answer a question about the optimal sentence, we would have to capture all of the information that affects those various factors and put them together mathematically and then recommend an answer. Frankly, no one can answer that question, but a solid economic methodology can help us better understand the question.”

In the end, the two economists concluded “maximizing the public benefits of sentencing reform requires carefully identifying which offenses and offenders to target for reduced versus increased sentencing guidelines,” according to their paper, “Smart Sentencing Guidelines: The Effect of Marginal Policy Changes on Recidivism.”

Estelle includes her research smack dab in the middle of her Hope economics classes, too, so as to achieve two objectives: remind Hope students that their professors are active scholars and provide effective examples on course topics.

This research is consistent with Estelle’s interests in microeconomics applied to individual human behavior. In the past, she has looked at welfare policy and how that affects low-income women’s decisions to go to college. She’s also researched how women’s decisions to attend college affects their own children’s academic achievement and how parenting influences adolescent risky behavior.

“All of these things probably sound very sociological in nature, but they are actually smack dab in the middle of some really awesome economic research,” she says.

Estelle includes her research smack dab in the middle of her Hope economics classes, too, so as to achieve two objectives: remind Hope students their professors are active scholars, and provide effective examples on course topics.   She uses her recent recidivism research, for example, in her “Economics of the Public Sector” class which aims to build students’ understanding of the causes and consequences of government involvement through spending programs (such as education, health care, and Social Security) and taxation.

“Although the criminal justice role of government primarily belongs in courses on ‘law and economics,’ our research provides a great example of just how complex cost-benefit analysis is,” Estelle explains. “Students might think ‘well, where incarceration is concerned, there is the cost to the state’s budget and there are benefits to keeping the public safe.’ But that would be a really bad cost-benefit analysis. The question really is, if we want to figure out what the sentence should be, what categories of consequences do we need to consider under the headings of benefits and costs? I think this is something that students have some traction with as they can expand their thinking and step beyond those first two obvious kinds of consequences.”

“Finally at the end,” she concludes, “there is pride in the finished product and sense of satisfaction in being able to make a contribution.”

In the capstone class in the economics major, a senior research project, Estelle also applies wisdom learned from her recent research in another way. As Hope students undertake their own independent research projects, Estelle instructs through her personal research, stories of inquiry that are tinged with a good deal of tenacity. It took her and Phillips four years to complete their study so “I can talk to my students about what provides motivation at different points in the research process. There’s curiosity and excitement at the start and there’s some of that in the middle with a good dose of obligation and commitment to intellectual integrity, too.”

“Finally, at the end,” she concludes, “there is pride in the finished product and sense of satisfaction in being able to make a contribution.”

Remembering Stan Lee in the classroom

Editor’s note: Dr. Jeff Tyler submitted this reflection upon learning of the passing of Stan Lee, former writer and editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. Lee is known for making household names of many of today’s most beloved superheroes.

Professor showing off his action figuresTwelve years ago Karima Jeffrey of the English Department and I offered a course at Hope called “Vocation, Spiritual Identity, and Comic Book Heroes.” It was exciting to blend our backgrounds and interests—Karima—a young African-American English Professor and myself a mid-career and white Professor of Religion and European History. Both of us had read Marvel Comics as teens and we were now aware that the Marvel movies were exciting a new generation of readers and viewers.

Female Marvel characters

We chose Marvel Comics in part because first year students were about to discover new gifts and abilities—new superpowers, so to speak—and we wanted characters who dramatized the difficult decisions we all face about calling, power, and identity. We had a particular focus on women in Marvel Comics, which increased our chance of attracting women to our class and allowed us to examine changing images of women in this medium.

An exceptional group of students signed up for our class. We were astounded that the characters Stan Lee and his colleagues created continued to mesmerize and raise compelling questions about the human condition. Though Karima has moved on to Hampton University, I recall our course often. A wall of my office still displays the Marvel actions figures I purchased for our teaching.

comic-characters

Today students sometimes come to my office anxious about a grade or feeling disconnected from me; they look right, see the action figures and say, “Is that Storm, or Captain America, or Giant Man?” Immediately we find common ground. I have likewise been pleasantly surprised by the number of Hope women—both students and faculty—who remain avid readers of Marvel and devotees of the movies.

This semester I am offering a course for first year students on the American Dream. In homage to my course with Karima, we read a selection of comics about Ms. Marvel—one of the new characters in the Marvel Universe. This teenage Ms. Marvel lives in Jersey City and, like her parents, is deeply devoted to Islam. She raises fascinating questions about the future of America, the American Dream, and the rich legacy of Stan Lee.