Archived Voice Articles
Faculty study stretching polymers, teaching poetry, understanding proofs and more
By Sally Jongsma
"The teacher who is a researcher is one who continues to be engaged at the frontier of his discipline," believes Dr. Keith Sewell, who teaches history at Dordt College. That engagement makes a difference in teaching.
Senior Matt Visker gained valuable research experience assisting Dr. John Zwart in his reasearch on stretching polymers.
"By the time I teach a course the next time, I've read more and addressed more related issues than when I taught it previously. It keeps me engaged in the discipline in a creative way.
Although Dordt College is primarily a teaching rather than a research institution, many faculty members feel as Sewell does and look for opportunities to read and research in addition to teaching four courses each semester. The college, which benefits through professors' contributions to academic scholarship and improved teaching, tries to make time available for research and writing to happen.
Dr. John Zwart took advantage of a study leave to work on several projects related to his field of physics. The college grants a full semester paid leave for approved research proposals. Zwart opted to take a year's leave, spreading his one semester salary over two semesters.
"My 'ideas for research file' has grown steadily," says Zwart, and there were things I wanted to do to involve students in research that were hard to get to while teaching full time." Zwart also admits that after twenty years he was feeling a little stale. He's back in the classroom this fall, full of energy and having given several presentations and worked on three manuscripts for publication.
"It was wonderful to pick up a journal and put it down when I was ready to, not when I had to," he says. Zwart spent much of his time doing background preparation and beginning an experiment that uses laser light scattering to characterize the molecular behavior of polymer films as they are stretched. Getting involved in laboratory work with a student confirmed for him again the importance of making more student research opportunities available. He was assisted by physics major Matt Visker, who wrote in his evaluation of the opportunity: "I had to make the adjustment from having the steps laid out for me nicely as in previous labs to doing, thinking, and being creative in performing the experiment."
Research for a manuscript titled "Between Copernicus and Galileo: Science Religion, and John Calvin," not only produced an article for publication but also a presentation at the national meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers and the Iowa Academy of Science.
"I received a letter from a retired Iowa State University engineer and self-proclaimed atheist who thanked me for discussing faith and science issues in a way he was not accustomed to seeing. He asked some interesting questions, and we have been corresponding since that time," Zwart says. At the national meeting in August, Zwart sensed genuine openness and interest in his Reformed perspective.
Professor Dave Schelhaas is teaching sixth graders for an hour and a half each day to test the workshop approach to reading and writing.
The other program that gives faculty time for research is a Studies Institute appointment. Faculty can submit a research proposal and apply for a half to three-quarter time appointment to the Studies Institute, teaching one or two courses instead of four to give them time for research.
"Any time you teach it can take up all of your time," says Dr. Arnold Sikkema, who will have a three-quarter release time appointment for second semester this year. "I'll have to manage my time well, but this gives me time I've been wanting for the past few years." He agrees with Sewell about the importance of such work. He does it both for his own development and for that of his students.
Sikkema, who also teaches physics, will work on both a new and an already started project. He will further develop and publish research presented earlier at a Calvin College Faculty Spring Conference on "Theology and the new Physics." Such work deepens and opens up new topics on faith's impact on science for his teaching, he says.
And he plans to study, from a Reformed Christian perspective, the question of causality, especially in relation to complex systems.
In layman's terms studying causality is studying the simple notion of cause and effect-how little things cause big things to happen. He cites as example Hurricane Isabel, which formed as the result of many "little" events.
"The old saying that a grasshopper in Minnesota can cause a storm in New Jersey isn't far off," he says. He plans to choose a simple complex system-say the chaos in an electrical circuit-for his study, and he plans to involve students in research as well.
English professor David Schelhaas is in the middle of a different sort of study. After teaching English teachers for several years from a book by Nancie Atwell, In the Middle, which advocates a workshop approach to writing, Schelhaas decided he wanted to see for himself if it really worked. So, he is joining two sixth grade teachers at Sioux Center Christian School to teach reading and writing using the workshop approach. With this method students spend most of their time reading and writing and in conference with their teachers. Relatively little time is spent with the teacher presenting.
"It's very labor intensive, but I want to find out how such an approach affects students attitudes about themselves as readers and writers," he says. And he wants to find out if it is worth encouraging future teachers to teach this way. The experience is already carrying over into his methods class as he shares the sixth grade students' writing with his college students. He asks them how they would respond in a conference on a particular piece. Schelhaas expects to write up his reflections in an article to be submitted to a teachers' journal.
Fellow English professor, Dr. John Van Rys, will explore how writing happens in Dordt College courses and how writing relates to curricular goals in general education courses. He'll look at where students do writing, what kinds of writing they do, how it is evaluated, and whether they are getting writing experiences that advance their writing and thinking skills.
Van Rys, who is co-author of Houghton Mifflin's The College Writer and Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating in the Workplace, will look at syllabi, talk to instructors, collect assignments, and interview students before making some assessments and recommendations.
"I'm excited about the project but also a little apprehensive about looking at other people's courses. I may find everything fully adequate or may have some suggestions for change. Whatever the case, my aim is to be of service to my colleagues and the institution."