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Summer studies: UWS students delve into research projects

On Friday, Tim Cleary (right) helps Mariel Santos fit a metal petal on a sculpture she is building at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. (Clint Austin / / 2
UWS student Kang Her (right) and her mentor, Lynn Goerdt, are working on a project titled “Students of color at UWS: effectiveness of a UWS peer mentoring program.” Kang is learning from Goerdt how to use a computer program that will help her gather and analyze data. (Clint Austin / / 2

Some college students use the summer to take much-needed vacations, some take on internships or pick up a summer job to earn some extra cash. However, a handful of University of Wisconsin-Superior students opted for a different route.

This year, 10 UWS students received a $3,500 grant from the university to conduct an extensive 10-week undergraduate research fellowship project in the field of math, science, literature, art, social work or law.

“This fellowship gives students an opportunity to work with a mentor and learn from them and their projects,” said UWS senior Mariel Santos, an art education major. “This is only the beginning of an adventure.”

The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, or SURF, which started in 2012, is intended to create collaboration between students and their mentors, which can be a UWS faculty or staff member. The student and mentor put in 20 hours for 10 weeks to research a topic of their choice, conduct research, create a work of art and present their findings during the upcoming school year. The student and their mentor then collectively write a proposal on their potential project and submit it to undergraduate research fellowship project officials. SURF awards are competitive and approximately 27 students have been supported and received SURF grants in the first three years of the program. Not every student is permitted a grant.

“The idea is to make this like a job since the students will spend majority of their summer working on this project,” said Julie O’Leary, undergraduate research scholarship and creative activity program director. “We provide grants for the students because we want them to get engaged in their school work and conduct research in their field early on.”

Santos and mentor Tim Cleary, a UWS visual arts professor, are working together on an ambitious art project.

“I wanted to learn more about metalwork and sculpture, and thought SURF would be a great way to do that,” Santos said.

Last year, Cleary worked with Santos in a metalwork class. Santos felt Cleary would make a great mentor for the research project, and so a partnership was formed.

“When I was taking metalwork with Tim, there was a short period in that class when I didn’t know what I wanted to make,” Santos said.

Cleary then handed Santos a picture book of musical instruments. After flipping through the book, Santos felt it would be nearly impossible to make one of the instruments.

After talking to Cleary about her impossible idea, she realized she wanted to prove herself wrong as well as enhance her problem-solving skills.

 “I decided I wanted to build a sculpture, something I have never done before, and I wanted to make it an interactive piece,” Santos said. “I also wanted the sculpture to have meaning to it and be something people could connect with. That is how the sculpture ‘You are Brave’ was born.”

Santos said this project consists of stainless steel, a ton of work sweat and problem solving. She is constructing a large metal flower that will be about 5½ feet tall.

 “She imagines the exterior being unfriendly in appearance with a crusty, aggressive surface,” Cleary said. “With human manipulation the petals will open on hinges to reward the viewer with a contrastingly pleasant interior. The entire thing will be made from stainless steel and will be colored through various processes. … It is an interactive and fairly open metaphor.”

So far, Santos has faced a few challenges such as getting the metal to sculpt the way she wants it to, but overall she’s learned a lot from the project and finds it’s very rewarding.

 “I know by the end of our 10 weeks, I will have grown and learned more than I could have anticipated,” Santos said. “There is something about working with your hands and building something from scratch; the fact that you created something is really rewarding…and I get to do that every day.”

 “She is getting a great return on her efforts, risk-taking and her sensitivity to new developments throughout the project,” Cleary said. “I’ve enjoyed watching her grow over the last few weeks.”

UWS junior Kang Her wanted to learn more about diversity issues. The junior’s project, “Students of color at UWS: effectiveness of a UWS peer mentoring program,” was a result of collaboration with  Lynn Goerdt.

 Her completed a research project on the peer mentor program last year, but this year she wanted to further the research by focusing on qualitative data. This would allow her to understand the experience of participation in the peer mentor program and teach her interview skills along the way with qualitative data analysis.

“I chose this project because I felt that it was very important to learn and help students of color educationally as it has the lowest retention rates at both high school and college level,” said Her, a social work major. “I want to understand how the program similar to the peer mentoring program can help students of color achieve their higher educational goals.”

Her asked Goerdt, an assistant social work professor, to be her mentor. Goerdt guided Kang through the research process and showed her how to use software to measure qualitative data.

“I’m teaching Kang the skills and analysis steps as she moves through the project,” Goerdt said. “Kang is an amazing student, so it is truly an honor to have the chance to work with her.”

Her has discovered many positive results; a number of students said the program is quite effective.

“Most of the students said they enjoyed the program and said it should be further enhanced,” Her said.

Announcements for next year’s fellowship project will go out in midwinter 2014 through early spring 2015.

Any student interested in participating next year must submit a proposal, find a mentor and come up with a research project. Students also must have been on campus for a year, enrolled at UWS the following year and have a good academic standing.