“A liberal arts education is not just about understanding the concepts, it’s a full circle approach – an understanding of application. Liberal arts teaches a balance and understanding of how things are connected. Liberal arts is the dedication to developing a well rounded individual,” said Andrew Putt, Environmental Biology & Watershed Management Geoscience major at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania.
October 21-22nd, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) hosted the 7th annual COPLAC Northeast Regional Undergraduate Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity Conference (NEURSCA). Eight COPLAC institutions gathered to share poster and oral presentations, performances, and works of art.
Putt presented a poster titled “Media-facilitated Iron Oxidizing Bioreactor for Acid Mine Drainage Treatment” and an oral presentation titled “Detection and Monitoring of Environmental Triclosan Degradation Gene Expression In Situ.” Both of these topics are deeply rooted in the sciences, so individuals who are not in STEM fields may not be exposed to this kind of research, in the opinion of Putt.
“I unequivocally believe that liberal arts conferences such as this provide the greatest access to those that are not embedded in science, and likewise for those that are not embedded in art or literature,” said Putt. “It provides an open forum that is more inviting to a variety of people and encourages a broader form of learning. It grants students and members of the academic community the opportunity to learn far more and expand their limits of thinking.”
Joshua Lemay, a Creative Writing major at Johnson State College, presented a short story titled “Remnants” which followed a pair of automatons living in a future in which the earth is covered in ash. He too found value in the interdisciplinary nature of the conference.
“I loved listening to a presentation about gender roles in Bollywood films, and then having a conversation about arsenic in groundwater almost immediately afterward,” said Lemay. “The range and depth of topics was by far the most impressive part of the conference.”
Not only was there a range of topics presented at NEURSCA, but students chose a variety of ways to share their work. MCLA English and Communications major, Bryanna Bradley, chose to share her scholarly and creative work through a hybrid presentation performance titled “African American Improv Traditions.”
“A good portion of African American Improv traditions (scatting, riffing, dancing, etc.) are exchanged without the written word,” said Bradley. “We came up with an interactive dance presentation to convey the performative aspects. I became very aware that my presentation performance was unlike any of my fellow presenters, which was a very exciting and nerve-racking thought. However, one of my main points was that dance is a text. Dance can be just as spell-binding as poetry and informative as research. Being at a liberal arts institution allows for exploring new ideas, digging deeper into concepts and allowing information to be shown in new ways.”
In addition to sharing accomplishments, students had the opportunity to share and discuss their passions – the reasons they choose to go into their fields of study.
“Every person deserves access to clean water, fresh air and safe land,” said Putt. “An economic status or social values should never deny these rights to anyone. My passion is speaking up for the people who cannot safely eat the vegetables grown in their backyard – for the fish that cannot swim in the streams where they were once native. Microbial bioremediation is a young, growing and rapidly developing field with seemingly endless possibilities growing in scope every day.”
Learning how to connect with people, share different viewpoints, and impact change is one of the benefits of a liberal arts education. Lemay believes that exposure to the humanities and literature are especially helpful in accomplishing this.
“I think an interest in the humanities exposes any student to an incredibly diverse range of viewpoints,” said Lemay. “None of us are mind readers, and storytelling is nothing if not a form of telepathy, whereby new situations and ideas can be safely hosted and fully explored. Fiction, in particular, can be an exercise in empathy. Readers may come to know a fully-realized character better than anyone else in their lives. From a writer’s standpoint, it is our job to understand and create these characters, no matter how abominable they may appear on the page. Stories are the way in which we can understand each other, and I believe they are incredibly important because of this.”
Such exposure helps students develop their own viewpoints, identify and explore passions, and create goals for the future.
“A student’s career path isn’t only defined by their major, but the incorporation of personal experiences and passions as well,” said Bradley. “To have a platform like COPLAC to mesh my love of both dance and research is beyond rewarding.”
The interdisciplinary nature of NEURSCA sets it apart from many undergraduate conferences. Whether students’ research entails wading into watersheds to test water quality, transcribing a post-apocalyptic world onto paper, or analyzing how African American improvisational traditions transformed through the centuries – there is a space for COPLAC students to share their work at NEURSCA.
“I believe that conferences are one of the best ways of sharing research and ideas. It provides the opportunity to inspire one another, expanding our knowledge past our own realm of understanding. This conference allowed me the opportunity to explore topics outside of my field of study, to experience art, science and literature simultaneously,” said Putt.
At the end of the two-day event, students and faculty alike applauded the high-level work COPLAC students brought to the table, according to Lemay.
“There wasn’t a single person who didn’t display a clear and accurate knowledge of their field,” said Lemay.