Hands-On Learning from Day1 and Beyond

As Eleda Plouch, a freshman from Greenfield, Indiana, prepared for her first semester of college last summer, various thoughts raced through her mind. Would she enjoy her classes? How would she deal with the stress of schoolwork?

And would she find a core group of friends?

Those concerns all dissipated though, as soon as she began her first week of Day1: Watershed, which engages incoming freshmen in authentic research activities throughout the entire academic year as part of their first-year coursework — even before their traditional classes begin in August.

The program is modeled after Hope’s Phelps Scholars Program, in which all participants live together in the same residential hall, as Day1: Watershed students move into Lichty Hall one week before most other freshmen arrive on campus for Orientation Weekend. The resulting inclusive community — which encourages collaboration and nurtures friendships among a diverse group of students — is also immediately involved with one of Hope’s most well-known traditions, collaborative student-faculty research, as they work alongside program co-leaders Dr. Aaron Best, who is the Harrison C. and Mary L. Visscher Professor of Genetics, and Dr. Brent Krueger, professor of chemistry and Schaap Research Fellow, to conduct research on Holland’s Lake Macatawa watershed.

“Students’ Day1: Watershed experience begins with a pre-college immersion experience, as they kayak the watershed, collect samples from it and then process the samples in a lab,” Best says. “By the end of their first week, they already have a support group of peers with common interests, and they know their way around campus before most other freshmen. Not to mention, they’ve also seen a preview of the kind of research they’ll be conducting during the year.”

For more than 15 years, Hope faculty members have collaborated with students to conduct research on the Lake Macatawa watershed, which is polluted with several nutrients (primarily due to agricultural runoff), resulting in the growth of algae and other organisms that have negatively affected wildlife. To help remediate these issues — by creating restoration sites that can potentially prevent the runoff — a local community initiative, known as Project Clarity, was established in November 2012. Two years later, Hope received a $3 million grant from The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation of Midland, Michigan, which was used to create the Day1: Watershed program.

Since the program’s founding in August 2015, student participants have gathered and analyzed water samples from several sites throughout the watershed to determine whether or not the restoration sites have reduced pollutants. Working alongside Best, students have also been chronicling multiple strains of E. coli present in the watershed. Typically, E. coli is associated with host gut environments, but many of the strains from the watershed are actually unassociated with fecal contamination. In addition, microbes, discovered alongside the E. coli strains, have also been studied to see if there is a connection between them. The research, funded by a National Science Foundation grant since August 2016, is expected to add 750 new genome sequences to public databases that can be used by researchers worldwide.

Photo by Jon Lundstrom

“All Day1 programs — Watershed, along with four others [EDGE, Great Lakes, Michigan Rocks and Phage Discovery] that are currently offered — give students a chance to actively participate in doing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), rather than just learn about them,” says Dr. Catherine Mader, professor of physics and director of the Day1 initiative. “From their very first day on campus, they’re able to do the types of activities a professional in the field would do. By developing these skills, they’re not only prepared for subsequent STEM courses, but also for future research and career opportunities in STEM.”

As a result of the Dow Foundation grant, the Day1: Watershed program is also able to fund experiential learning opportunities that occur during the summer after students’ freshman year. So far, some students have chosen to participate in off-campus opportunities in Tanzania and the Bahamas (through Biology and Geology May Term courses), while others have conducted research with faculty members. Ashley Trojniak, a sophomore from Sterling Heights, Michigan, who participated in the Day1: Watershed program during the 2015-2016 academic year, was among those who decided to conduct research last summer.

“Because real-world experience is the best way to try new things, the Watershed program has been helpful in shaping how I view research as a career,” Trojniak states. “The program, along with last summer’s research, has given me the chance to see what it’s like to conduct research firsthand.”

By personally collecting samples from the watershed, conducting hands-on, authentic research as part of her first-year coursework, and then personally witnessing the links between bacteria and physical changes in the watershed, Eleda Plouch has found her career path solidified as well.

“Before I began research last summer, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Plouch explains. “But now, after experiencing field research and lab analysis, I plan to begin a career in research after graduating from Hope. And the Day1: Watershed program has been instrumental in this decision.”

Photo by Jon Lundstrom

Meanwhile, although current participant Zachary Snoek, a freshman from Holland, Michigan, never planned to pursue a science major, he found the Day1: Watershed course description very compelling, so he chose to sign up. As a result, his knowledge of — and respect for — the watershed, the microbial world and natural sciences, on a whole, has increased considerably the last few months.

“I recommend the program to all students, even if they don’t plan to major in a STEM field,” Snoek says. “It may not have affected my long-term academic plans, but it has provided a wide base of knowledge that I will continue to use for the rest of my life.”

Top photo by Jon Lundstrom

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