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Research is "Kingdom" Work

By Sally Jongsma

A dozen students spent their summer working with a half-dozen of their professors on projects involving weather patterns, sweet sorghum ethanol, the Cux1 protein, honey bees, a biomass catalyst for biodiesel fuel, and energy use in different methods of farming.

Matt Vande Burgt shows Danielle Kelderman one of the telescopes available to Dordt College students who are studying astronomy.

Matt Vande Burgt shows Danielle Kelderman one of the telescopes available to Dordt College students who are studying astronomy.

“I wanted to get a feel for what working in the world of physics was actually like and, at the same time, get good experience for the future,” says sophomore Matt Vande Burgt from Salem, Oregon. Vande Burgt did solar research with Dr. Doug Allen, who teaches physics.

Allen, who had four students working with him this summer, says the reason he does research and makes research opportunities available to students is so they can explore God’s world.

“So many problems students learn about are already solved,” he says of classroom reading and laboratory experiments. “What happens when you don’t have the answer?”

Dr. Tony Jelsma, a professor of biology, calls research “kingdom work,” because it allows students to discover creation. “It allows students to do science rather than learn about science,” he adds. It also gives them an opportunity think about how doing scientific research might fit with their calling. Allen notes that some students seem “wired” to ask further questions and go beyond what the book tells them. The best way for them to do that is by conducting real research into aspects of creation that have not been discovered. Faculty advisors give students the guidance they need to come up with good research ideas, frame the problems, and ask the right questions. From there, students take the lead and get to work. As a faculty supervisor, Allen says his challenge is to find research projects for students that haven’t been researched to death yet will be of interest to them and others.

Dr. Ethan Brue, who teaches engineering, notes another guideline for the research he wants his students to pursue: their projects should reflect who they are as Christians. As an engineer, one of the things he is concerned about is energy stewardship and sustainability. His project on turning sweet sorghum to ethanol on a small farm scale grew out of that perspective.

“I wanted to be a part of Dr. Brue’s research project because I like the goal—an alternative for ethanol production that fits into a sustainable agriculture system. It is good for both the environment and small farmers, two issues that interest me and my work,” says Jeremy Westra, a senior engineering major from Mount Vernon, Washington.

“Creation is complex,” adds Dr. Ed Geels, who teaches chemistry. Seeing how God created things helps students see how interrelated they are. Research done from that perspective can help them find good solutions to problems in the world.

Research also has very practical benefits for students. “It’s good preparation for graduate school,” says Dr. Chris Goedhart, who teaches agriculture. Jelsma adds that medical schools are putting more and more emphasis on undergraduate research experience when they admit students to their programs. And it can help confirm career choices or career directions for students.

To make the summer research efforts as valuable and enjoyable as possible, Allen and Jelsma organized morning coffees that brought students together to share what they were doing in their separate labs. These gatherings became times for encouraging each other when things were slow. Research demands long stretches of time, and it can be tedious.

“I learned that doing research about the creation can be fast and productive one day but slow and frustrating the next,” says Vande Burgt.

“I enjoy researching, but I miss people while researching,” says Melissa Kroll, a senior biology major from Sioux Center. Both enjoyed the morning coffees and also the weekly seminars that were scheduled on Fridays over pizza. Students and faculty in the natural science division gave short presentations on research they were engaged in.

“It was a good way to get to know other students working in the science building and to interact with the professors in a more relaxed setting,” says Danielle Kelderman, a junior engineering major from Rock Valley, Iowa.

“The coffee times forced us to take a break from thinking about the problem at hand and come back to our work with a fresh perspective. We could also hear about what other people were doing, and what they were struggling with at that moment,” adds Vande Burgt.

Although the summer research was invaluable for students, it benefitted faculty, too. All agree that keeping current in their fields is important.

“As teachers, faculty need to keep learning all the time,” says Jelsma. “It’s crucial to be doing either research or writing during the summer to do our jobs well.” Brue notes that having good student assistants is essential if faculty at teaching colleges, who carry a heavier course load than those at research institutions, are to engage in research. But it takes time to teach students precise research techniques before they can be truly helpful and move ahead on their own.

Brue, who is in the second year of his current project, says he wouldn’t be able to get the work done on his project for the Iowa Energy Center without his students. They in turn gain confidence through the work, as well as practice in presenting their results to others.

Agriculture major Maria Verburg sums up the experience as other students might: “I learned about the nature of research: that it’s not just cut and paste, black and white, but it involves making mistakes, malfunctioning equipment, and trying again. It also involves monotonous hours in the lab doing the same thing over and over. However, it was a rewarding experience. When you finish recording data and are able to get a big, overall picture, the hours spent in lab were worth it.”