Science research can get messy, and Andrew Hansen ’14 experienced that firsthand this summer in Professor Jim Doyle’s physics lab, in the form of an equipment malfunction.
“The heart of the experiment all has to be done inside a vacuum chamber, and what I was doing early on was building a small apparatus to generate plasma inside the chamber,” he says. “The first one exploded a little bit, but we remedied the design, and it’s been working a lot better.”
With no answers in the back of a textbook—or even from their professors—more than 80 Macalester students learned different variations of that lesson this summer as they conducted science research in Olin-Rice labs and in the field. They worked in conjunction with faculty members, but many of the students oversaw their own individual projects and, once they obtained the necessary skills, worked independently and delved deeply into the project. “Once they learn the techniques, I turn them loose, they do the experiments, we talk about the results, we try to interpret them and decide what to do next,” chemistry professor Katy Splan says.
“They really get a chance to see how science works, every step of the way.”
–Prof. Kelly MacGregor
For some students, the start of the academic year doesn’t mark the end of their research. Some will continue their work through the year as honors or senior capstone projects. Others will present their findings at national meetings in their fields or publish papers with their professors. “It allows them to demonstrate this incredible liberal arts skill set: their ability to think critically, to read and interpret, to organize data and present their own work,” geology professor Kelly MacGregor says. “They really get a chance to see how science works, every step of the way.”