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Connecting and Collaborating

A spirit of collaboration winds its way across our whole campus. Our liberal arts philosophy proudly promotes linking different subjects. Biology relies on English. Political science calls upon cinema and media studies. Sociology cozies up to art history. Everyone connects.

Here are a few of the ways Carls put their heads together to get the best possible results.

There’s an app for that

A creator at heart, Stephen Grinich would have been content to tinker with web apps on his own time. It’s what computer science majors do for fun.

But thanks to Carleton’s emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary learning, Grinich became an in-demand app developer on campus.

“It’s especially gratifying that I can make people’s work easier,” Grinich says.

In his sophomore year, the McMinnville, Oregon, native found a natural fit in computer science professor Jeff Ondich’s “Mobile Application Development” course. Grinich’s group addressed a real need in the dean’s office by creating a mobile guide for New Student Week. The app combines a calendar of events with an interactive campus map, a student adviser database, and a “Speak Carleton” dictionary of common terms and acronyms.

Grinich didn’t have to look far for his next opportunity. Psychology professor Ken Abrams and his student research team wanted to study the effects of alcohol on cardioception — your ability to perceive your heart rate. They also wanted to know if alcohol influences the likelihood of having a panic attack.

It was the perfect collaboration. Abrams needed a highly specific app for his research; Grinich wanted practical experience.

“This expands what’s possible. I can start with a list of ideas and hand it off to a team in [Ondich’s] course. Or I can let a student like Stephen run with it,” Abrams says.

With computer science enrollment at Carleton booming, Ondich is happy to offer his students more autonomy on projects.

“I’ve made it one of my techniques to say, ‘OK, developing this is your responsibility. You get how this works, now go help each other,’ ” Ondich says. “And boy, they step up to the challenge. Our students are capable of a lot of creative thinking and execution.”

Real difference makers

On a recent off-campus studies trip to Ethiopia, Carleton environmental studies professor Tsegaye Nega brought students to the home of a 25-year-old woman named Fikerte. Wherever she goes, her six-month old son goes with her — always clutching her back. This means both of them are spending a lot of hours in a tiny kitchen, where an open-pit fire is used both for cooking and as a heat source for the home.

“The smoke levels in that kitchen that are four times higher than what is recommended by the World Health Organization,” Nega says. “So you see it and think, ‘Your son is breathing in all this smoke. He could be dead within a year.’ The mother knows this. But when asked about the pollution, she simply says, ‘What can we do? We have to eat.’ ”

So Nega and the Carleton students began working with villagers to replace open-pit fires with small, energy-efficient stoves. Throughout Africa, fire pits often are the only affordable method of cooking and home heating.

“If one of the big sources of soot in a region is burning wood — inefficiently — for home heating and cooking, you can try to change the technology people are using,” says chemistry professor Deborah Gross. “The results have a significant impact on climate and on the people who are no longer breathing in so much smoke. It’s a win-win.”

First, Nega had to find a viable alternative for cooking and heating. He teamed up with Carleton science support specialist Randy Hoffner to make a micro gasifier stove. This inexpensive, efficient cook stove is made from common hardware store parts. Next, the students in Gross’s “Climate Science” class began measuring aerosol particles to help quantify the project’s health impacts and offer a new approach to this kind of work.

“Colleges and universities are about developing students as good citizens,” Nega says. “At Carleton, we think about the connection between academics and real-world engagement. We have an obligation to show students that.”

Adding new dimensions

Carleton history professor Susannah Ottaway wanted to give her students a realistic sense of social welfare in 18th-century England. She decided to focus on workhouses, part of England’s nationwide system for poor relief in the late–17th century.

To give her students a deeper perspective of how the spaces were established, she asked two student Digital Humanities Associates if they could create a 3D model of a workhouse.

“Building the workhouse model gave us a whole new set of questions about how it functioned and why it was constructed in a specific way. It’s been transformative to the kind of research questions we need to be asking,” Ottaway says.

It may have started as dipping a toe into the 3D waters, but it turned into a full-blown body splash thanks to Austin Mason, assistant director for digital humanities. He expanded Ottaway’s original proposal with gaming elements, making the virtual workhouse more interactive.

Pulling from all corners of campus kept the collaboration flourishing. Florence Wong, a studio art major from Hong Kong, added her own creative flair to the model’s design. Graham Earley, a computer science major from Minneapolis, brought his love of software development to the project. In total, six computer science majors used this project for senior comps.

The project is a testament to how Carleton encourages students and faculty and staff members to think collaboratively in order to achieve far-reaching results.

“We all have our own domain knowledge, and allowing those various skill sets to come together is what let us take things so much farther,” Mason says. “We were always thinking about the best way to get something done. And the fact that it’s been so experimental and collaborative allowed the project to grow organically.”