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St. Olaf College
A private liberal arts college of the Lutheran church in Minnesota
Updated: 4 days 1 hour ago
For St. Olaf College student Kirsten Schowalter ’15, an internship this summer with the Weltmuseum Wien — the Worldmuseum Vienna — was not only a chance to gain professional skills, but also an opportunity to apply her liberal arts experience in a professional setting.
“I was interested in working with Weltmuseum Wien because I felt the efforts of the museum were a summation of many of my experiences at St. Olaf,” says Schowalter.
Schowalter just completed an internship with the curatorial department at the museum, which is one of the most important ethnological museums in the world.
Home to more than 200,000 artifacts and ethnographic objects, including a feathered headdress thought to have belonged to Moctezuma II, the museum is housed in the famed Hofburg Palace, once the residence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ruling Hapsburg family and currently the seat of the president of Austria.
The museum is undergoing a significant renovation that will reopen rooms that haven’t been used in years, making space for a number of new collections to be put on display.
“To give you a sense of scale, there are currently four exhibitions at Weltmuseum Wien, three of which are temporary,” Schowalter says. “By 2016, Weltmuseum Wien plans to open 15 new permanent exhibitions.”
Schowalter’s work related to the development of these new exhibits.
“I researched content that may be included in the exhibits and helped organize the objects so that the architects of the renovation project are able to have a smooth collaboration with the curatorial staff,” she says.
“It was a good experience for everyone involved,” says Barbara Plankensteiner, Schowalter’s supervisor and the museum’s deputy director, chief curator, and curator of the Sub-Saharan African collection. “Kirsten gained insider background and thought about both academic and field-related questions, and having a new person to work with always adds to the institution.”
Through the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, Schowalter’s internship counts for academic credit. She worked with Assistant Professor of Sociology Ibtesam Al Atiyat to investigate the sociological themes surrounding museums and prepare a formal presentation on the topic, which she will deliver on campus in the fall.
“Kirsten thought deeply about what constitutes a museum, reflected on the representation of other cultures at a museum located in Europe, and examined questions related to the ultimate purpose of a museum and the functions of power it serves,” says Al Atiyat.
“What is unique about her internship is that she was not simply going through the experience without engaging in a reflective critical assessment of the tasks she performed and the place she worked,” she adds. “The readings we added to her workload gave her internship a scholarly frame — a frame that fits well within the promise of liberal arts education.”
Schowalter says that the museum’s mission — to inspire “greater understanding of the global diversity of our world” — aligns with the course her studies have taken at St. Olaf.
“The museum’s work to communicate this diversity provided a platform for me to reflect on my experience at St. Olaf,” she says. “I’ve done coursework in Spanish, sociology/anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, history, dance, and political science, and been involved in Companydance. This internship helped me think about how I can communicate what I’ve learned from these experiences to others.”
The Physics and Engineering Camp for Girls at St. Olaf College has received a grant from the Pentair Corporation for the second year in a row, allowing all participants of this summer’s program to attend free of charge.
One of nine camps that St. Olaf offers in the summer for middle and high school students, the Physics and Engineering Camp encourages young girls to explore the sciences.
During the camp, participants learn to design and develop a Rube Goldberg Machine, a complicated contraption that uses a number of whimsical and counterintuitive steps to accomplish a very simple task.
Past camp participants have designed machines to make a bowl of cereal, deliver a gumball, or put toothpaste on a toothbrush, says St. Olaf Associate Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht, who is the program’s faculty leader (St. Olaf student teams won the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest in 2012 and 2009 with the help of Engbrecht).
As part of the Pentair Corporation, the Pentair Foundation offers grants to programs that provide opportunities in STEM education.
St. Olaf College President David R. Anderson ’74 has announced the appointment of Jo Beld as vice president for mission.
Beld, a professor of political science, currently serves as the director of evaluation and assessment in the St. Olaf Office of Institutional Research and Evaluation.
She takes over the role of vice president for mission from Paula Carlson ’76, who has been named president of Luther College.
Beld joined the St. Olaf faculty in 1984. For the last 13 years, she has led the college’s evaluation and assessment activities. Under her leadership, the St. Olaf assessment program received an award for Outstanding Institutional Practice in Student Learning Outcomes from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The college’s assessment work is also featured on the website of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.
Beld is a speaker and workshop facilitator for a wide array of higher education organizations, including the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Association of Governing Boards, the Southern Education Foundation, and the Higher Learning Commission.
She is also a member of the advisory board for the National Survey of Student Engagement, the assessment director for an inter-institutional STEM project funded by the National Science Foundation, and an evaluator for a grant-funded project enhancing graduate student preparation for evidence-informed teaching in the arts and sciences.
Beld earned her baccalaureate degree from Bethel University. She went on to earn an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Yale University. Her teaching and research specializations include American politics, public policy, ethics, and social science research methods.
Why is it that some recipients of cochlear implants are able to understand speech very well, while others struggle to make sense of even the simplest sentences?
This is the question a new project through St. Olaf College’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program is investigating this summer.
“Although most implanted individuals do acquire the ability to perceive sound, there is substantial variability in how well cochlear implant users can understand spoken language,” says St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeremy Loebach, who is leading the research.
“This variability cannot be accounted for by differences in the cause of their hearing loss, the onset and duration of deafness, how old they were when they received their implant, or other surgical or physiological factors,” he adds. “Despite extensive research efforts, understanding why this variability exists and how to control it remains a significant clinical problem.”
Loebach is working with Rachel Bash ’15 and Brandon Cash ’16 to discover the cause of this variability. But more than that, they want to develop a way to train cochlear implant users how to improve their hearing.
“We believe that explicit training will provide implantees with a foundational set of neurocognitive skills that they can use to better develop auditory and speech processing proficiency, thereby reducing some of the variability observed in outcome and benefit,” Loebach says. “Essentially, we want to teach them how to hear.”
In search of a solution
Cochlear implants are electronic neuroprosthetic devices that are surgically implanted in the inner ear and interface with an externally worn microphone. By converting sound into electrical impulses and transmitting them directly to the auditory nerve, they enable people with severe hearing loss or profound deafness to artificially perceive sound.
This high-tech treatment might bring to mind the visor that restored sight to the fictional character Geordi La Forge in the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. But unlike La Forge’s visor, which in the sci-fi series enabled him to see far beyond the spectrum of light visible to the naked eye, cochlear implants do not increase the range of sound users can perceive.
In fact, the electrode array that carries the signal has a maximum of 22 channels to represent sounds with frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hz. A normal hearing ear, on the other hand, has some 3,500 hair cells to cover the same range. This means that cochlear implant users have to do “a lot more with a lot less information,” according to Loebach.
But Loebach hypothesizes that in addition to this reduced range, the variability seen in the success of cochlear implant users may be caused by the lack of any standardized training paradigm, particularly for adults.
“With children there’s a lot of rehabilitation,” Loebach says, “and they will often have teams of audiologists following them throughout their early developmental years. But most adults who get a cochlear implant after they’ve lost their hearing get nothing. They’re left on their own to figure out how to learn how to hear again.”
In order to address this problem, Loebach and his students have been testing cochlear implant users in order to illuminate what it is that those who are successful are doing differently from those who are struggling. Armed with that information, the group can then modify their training program to specifically target those differences.
“The approach that we’re taking is that if we can better understand what the people who are doing really well are doing, and whether that’s something about the implant, the training, or about just how they understand the world and perceive sound, then we can make a standardized training program to help the people who are struggling to do better,” Loebach says.
Testing and training
The test is a computer program that works by playing recordings of different auditory stimuli, from ambient noises like a cash register closing to individual words and sentences. The cochlear implant user repeats back what they think they heard, and is then shown the correct response while the sample plays again. One important set of stimuli are anomalous sentences — sentences that are grammatically correct but have no meaning, like Noam Chomsky’s famous example “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
Loebach includes these anomalous sentences because they force listeners to rely on their sense of hearing to identify the words, not on linguistic context.
“When people have severe hearing loss, they tend to rely on context more and more,” he says. “We find that many cochlear implant users do indeed use this strategy, and perform very well on meaningful sentences. But for the anomalous sentences, context cannot help you to identify the words. Many cochlear implant users struggle with such sentences, and including such stimuli in training will teach the user to rely on their hearing, rather than the sentence context. So by removing the linguistic context of the stimuli, we can see what acoustic information cochlear implant users can make use of, and how this compares to their speech perception abilities.”
Loebach and his students hope to test at least 100 cochlear implant users over the course of the year. With that data, they will be able to develop their training model and put it into action.
Above is a recording of an anomalous sentence — “Plans now are a stiff pin for landing” — that has been altered to approximate what it might sound like to cochlear implant users. Below is the unaltered recording.
A multidisciplinary collaboration
In addition to his project with Bash and Cash, Loebach is also working with Katie Berg ’15 on a separate project through a Magnus the Good Fellowship. He and Berg are investigating whether musical training can benefit speech production and perception in cochlear implant users.
The study is looking at both pediatric and adult cochlear implant users, and will use several exercises to work on improving pitch discrimination abilities, an area where most cochlear implant users struggle. Loebach and Berg hope that improvement in pitch discrimination will also help cochlear implant users improve their speech intelligibility and production skills.
“I like that these projects combine music and psychology,” Berg says. “It’s the perfect mix of psychology and music. I didn’t ever think I would use my aural skills knowledge in the field of psychology, let alone to help someone else, so that’s pretty exciting.”
Cash says he was fascinated by the idea of teaching people how to hear.
“I’ve always loved music, and so I’ve always thought that hearing is important, because that’s how I enjoy what I love,” he says. “I took the Psychology of Hearing course with Professor Loebach, and then he brought up cochlear implants and the idea of helping people to hear again, to relearn how to hear. It just seemed like such an appealing idea to me. It’s related enough to my studies that I’m interested, and it’s far enough away that I feel like I’m expanding and growing.”
What interested Bash about the project was that it combined research with working with people.
“I wanted to get a sense of what research was like, as well as what it’s like to work with people,” she says. “I’m trying to decide whether I want to go into research versus something more with people, and I think this will help me decide. And this is starting to become a real passion of mine too, so I might even consider doing something with speech and language in the future.”
“An idea that started in a college dorm room has grown into a fruitful business for three recent college graduates,” notes a WCCO-TV profile of a frozen pops company founded by four St. Olaf College students.
The students — Erik Brust ’14, Connor Wray ’14, Andrew Sather ’14, and Kilian Wald ’14 — started JonnyPops with the support of an Entrepreneurial Grant from the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career.
Their business plan led them to take first place at the inaugural Ole Cup entrepreneurial competition this spring.
The group began by selling the pops at just two locations. Now, as the local CBS affiliate notes, JonnyPops are sold at 2,000 locations in seven states and will make their debut at the Minnesota State Fair later this summer.
A portion of every JonnyPops sale goes to the Hazelden Foundation, which helps those suffering from drug addiction.
“Today’s parents and students are asking harder questions about their return on investment,” a recent story in Comstock’s magazine titled “Attention College Shoppers” points out.
And, the California business publication notes, St. Olaf College provides clear answers through “a searchable database on its website that gives fine-grained detail about the first place students land after graduating.”
That information, the story says, “could sway college-shopping students and parents curious about what the market might hold if they pick St. Olaf and choose that major.”
The database is part of the college’s Outcomes initiative, which aims to clearly outline the return on investing in a St. Olaf education.
Last year St. Olaf College Professor of Physics Bob Jacobel was part of a team of researchers that made international headlines when they successfully drilled through 800 meters of ice — almost half a mile — to take microbial samples from subglacial Lake Whillans in West Antarctica.
But the story doesn’t end there.
This summer Jacobel is working with Kevin Dalla Santa ’14, Brian Craig ’15, and Adam Wood ’16 to analyze all of the geophysical data gathered over the course of that project and present it in one, overarching paper.
“There’s more of the story yet to be told,” Jacobel says.
The summer project, supported by the National Science Foundation, is part of ongoing research at the college’s Center for Geophysical Studies of Ice and Climate (CEGSIC), which Jacobel directs. The project also falls under the umbrella of the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.
Dalla Santa, Craig, and Wood are working with data that Jacobel and postdoctoral scientist Knut Christianson ’05 gathered while working with a team of scientists from eight different U.S. institutions on the Whillans Ice Stream in West Antarctica. The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project is funded by the National Science Foundation and aims to study the geobiology of subglacial lakes in West Antarctica as well as the dynamics of ice sheets.
Looking at the dynamics of ice
Although WISSARD is primarily a study of subglacial ecology and extremophiles, organisms that thrive in conditions that are inhospitable to other forms of life, the geophysical data Jacobel has gathered has broader applications in glaciology. Working with this data is the primary goal of this summer’s project.
“The geophysics that we do helps define where the best place to drill is, what kind of conditions they’re likely to find down there, and how that spot relates to the areas around it,” Jacobel says. “But at the same time, we’re looking at the dynamics of the ice and how that can respond to climate change.”
Jacobel uses an ice-penetrating radar system to gather data about the topography beneath a glacier and the way an ice stream is flowing. The radar, which works the way sonar works in water, can tell researchers the thickness of the ice, where the ice has thawed and if there’s liquid water present beneath the ice — it can even detect layers of atmospheric fallout, like volcanic ash, that became buried in the ice over time.
“That provides a climate record, but the way that these layers deform also tells us about the way the ice is flowing,” Jacobel says. “All that is key to understanding the dynamics of what’s going on.”
WISSARD began in 2010 and is now in its final stages, with one more bore hole scheduled for the coming season. Though several of the most important geophysical findings have already been published, Jacobel and his students are working to present all the data CEGSIC has gathered over the course of the project in a single comprehensive paper.
As a part of the group’s summer activities, they also read and review papers and proposals from other scientists.
“Knut and I get proposals to evaluate as part of the peer-review process, and we think it’s important to share them with the students so they get an idea of how to be critical and helpful at the same time and how to be discerning of whether an idea is good or not,” Jacobel says. “It also teaches them how to write strong papers and proposals themselves.”
More research ahead
In addition to reviewing other research proposals, the group is planning for its own operations post-WISSARD. Jacobel and Christianson have submitted proposals for a new project in Greenland as well as on another ice stream in West Antarctica. That project would be similar to geophysics being done with WISSARD, and would center around an area of the ice sheet known as the “grounding line.”
“The grounding line is a very crucial area where the ice first comes in contact with the ocean,” Jacobel says. “It’s the important point of interaction where the whole thing can begin to collapse. During our spring exam period there were two papers that came out in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters that made headlines in all the national media because they said ‘Whoa! The retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun, and it’s irreversible!’ I think it was that word, irreversible, that caught everyone’s attention. Those papers were from studies at a grounding line at another place in West Antarctica similar to the one that we’re studying. So grounding lines are kind of where it’s at right now.”
“When Charles ‘Chuck’ Schwenk showed up at his 50-year reunion at St. Olaf College last month, he didn’t come empty-handed,” notes a story in the Star Tribune. “He brought an oversized pennant that he and a group of Oles had stolen from nearby Carleton College more than 50 years before.”
Schwenk, along with classmates Al Andersen and Harry Schumacher, presented the pennant to St. Olaf President David R. Anderson ’74 at a reunion dinner.
“They were trying — but failing — to look repentant,” Anderson quipped.
Last week he returned the pennant to Carleton College President Steven Poskanzer, who was happy to have it back — and promised “general and lifelong amnesty to all the people who were involved.”
Star Tribune reporter Erin Adler notes that the easy banter between the two presidents is just one sign of a culture of collaboration that has developed between the colleges.
“That includes joint academic projects and faculty partnerships,” she writes. “On the social side, students can eat at the other college’s cafeteria using their regular dining card, and a joint fundraiser was recently held in which students could ‘Date a Carl’ or ‘Date an Ole.’”
The institutions have so much in common “that the rivalry is all fun these days,” Poskanzer tells the paper.