3 Days -- 3,000 Ideas

By President Tom Rochon

The undergraduate student population on the Ithaca College campus increased overnight by more than 50 percent between March 31 and April 2 of this year.

No, we didn’t accidentally send out an extra 3,400 letters of admission. We did, 
however, welcome that many student scholars at IC for a few days. As hosts of the National Conference for Undergraduate Research (NCUR), Ithaca College was the site of 2,836 individual scholarly presentations, 27 art exhibits, and 19 performing arts sessions — all by students who have been doing original work under faculty mentorship. 
The scale of the conference is suggested by 
the fact that extra flights were organized in and out of Ithaca’s regional airport; buses made their way up South Hill in a long line; and hotel rooms were completely booked as far away as Auburn, Cortland, Binghamton, and Owego.

Students came from Wales and from Wisconsin, from as close as Cornell and as far as Korea. The students from North Dakota exclaimed at the balmy spring weather; the students from Florida froze. In all there was representation from 44 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, along with a half dozen other countries. The largest single student contingent was from Ithaca College itself, with 240 student presentations among the nearly 2,900 scheduled.

The range of topics was dizzying. Does teen pregnancy have an impact on health and mortality in later life? How can music be used to help people learn foreign languages more easily? Are recycling programs making headway in Amman, Jordan? How is free market capitalism changing traditional Chinese values? What would be the single most powerful step for reducing infant mortality in sub-Saharan Africa? What kinds of environmental stimulation is most effective in alleviating learning deficits in rats? What are the key values of Egyptian feminists, and how might they influence that country’s path toward democracy? Do advertisements on women’s talk shows promote racism? Is there a better way to identify trihalomethane concentrations in drinking water? Does environmentalism threaten indigenous cultures? What happens to Shakespeare when he is translated into German? Have Major League players or owners benefited more from salary arbitration in baseball?

The answers to all these questions, and many more, were provided over the course of three frenetic days. In the old days, meaning two or three years ago, students attending a conference like this one would arrive on the host campus, stand in line to register, and receive a printed book listing the times and places of each presentation — usually with a one-page addendum of last minute additions and changes slipped inside. The printed schedule for this conference was supplemented by putting the program on a mobile website and by establishing a Twitter account that provided constant updates. Students and staff who planned the conference maintained a blog that will be of value for future host sites. As vast as the conference was, with dozens of panels taking place at the same time, it all felt like one coordinated experience.

This was the 25th annual NCUR conference, and it rotates to a different college campus each year. Ithaca College and the surrounding region were able to put their distinctive stamp on the proceedings. Participants were offered a tour of the Finger Lakes area as a diversion from their presentations. The School of Music and the Department of Theatre Arts collaborated to put on a remarkable concert and performance. IC students organized flash mob choreographies and performances at random times and places around the campus — one never knew quite what was going to happen next. All conference meals and activities were marked by a commitment to local foods and to composting that significantly reduced the amount of solid waste and carbon put into the atmosphere.

Strolling among the conference presentations, two impressions jumped out most strongly. First is the astonishingly fast adoption of new technologies by undergraduates performing their own research explorations. Whether it is gene sequencers, magnetic resonance imagers, or the latest statistical methods, technological breakthroughs are being used by today’s undergraduates to push the boundaries of knowledge.

The second startling trend lies in the seamless way our students move from the local to the global in their investigations. Research sites ranged from the waters of Cayuga Lake to North Africa to medieval Europe. In their informal conversations, students working in different fields of study and in different parts of the world found connections among their work that created hundreds of aha moments.   

This was a week students will remember for the rest of their lives. They’ll remember 
their journey to Ithaca, the beauty of the campus and the surrounding region, and the people they met. More than anything else, they will remember the awe-inspiring sight of thousands of other students like them — curious minds that seek to explore, understand, and create. To see the desire for knowledge so wonderfully cultivated and channeled among undergraduates from around the country was a marvelous experience. The NCUR conference affirmed Ithaca College’s place at the forefront of this educational movement.