Turning Up the Heat: Annual Summertime Program Helps Widener Students Apply Classroom Knowledge to Real-World Issues

Hilary Bentman, Associate Director of Communications; Nicole Carrera, Assistant Director of Communications
Student stands at a 3D printer in a mechanical engineering lab
Jared Ware, a mechanical engineering student, uses a 3D printer as part of his SURCA research.

It’s a summertime tradition at Widener.

For years, undergraduate students have been spending the scorching weeks between spring and fall semesters in the field, labs, and library working on research and creative activities with professors and faculty mentors.

The Summer Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities (SURCA) program offers students across academic disciplines the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to hands-on projects.

Along the way, the students hone their academic and research skills, preparing them for post-graduate education and careers, as well as their presentation and communication skills. As part of SURCA, students will present their work during the 13th annual SURCA Symposium on campus on Sept. 23.

Summer 2022 saw a record number of SURCA participants, which organizers attribute, in part, to the camaraderie of the program, and the chance for students to connect with alumni, faculty, and university staff outside of their disciplines.

“SURCA is a welcoming community,” said program co-director, Angie Corbo, chair of communication studies. “Faculty and students benefit from the one-on-one mentoring relationship that develops during SURCA. And there is a relaxed and vibrant energy on campus during the summer months.”

SURCA draws both returning participants, as well as first-timers to the program. Here are just a few of the latter:

Research in Her Own Backyard

For Bella Kuehn ’24, SURCA is personal. 

The chemical engineering and chemistry major spent the summer testing water samples from a stream running near her home in Minersville, Schuylkill County. As its name suggests, the town is home to coal mining, and runoff from operations has entered the waterways, turning one stream near her home a shade of orange.

Kuehn collected water samples and brought them back to a lab on campus to determine the amount of iron present.

Student in white lab coat and goggles holds up two flasks filled with yellow-orange liquid
Bella Kuehn displays flasks of liquid tested in the lab.

Working alongside Shirley Fischer-Drowos, associate professor and chair of chemistry, Kuehn tested water samples from several points along the stream, including below a filtration pond to determine how effective it was in weeding out contaminants. Kuehn will continue to collect samples throughout the year to measure the fluctuations caused by the changing seasons. 

“This is really motivating and interesting. I’m finding out stuff I’ve dealt with my whole life but didn’t think much of it,” said Kuehn.

Added Fischer-Drowos: “Being in her backyard, it appealed to her, and she’s really invested in it and motivated to collect meaningful data that can impact her community.”

Kuehn decided to take part in SURCA because she was looking for experience outside the classroom, and a way to apply her chemistry knowledge to a real-world scenario. There is nothing quite as real-world as the stream that runs through her own neighborhood.

“It was a realization point for me. I could use chemistry for things I know and apply it to everyday life,” said Kuehn, who aspires to work in the cosmetics industry, using her chemistry knowledge to develop new products.

Fischer-Drowos calls these realization moments her “favorite part of SURCA – watching students pick up skills and they see how it can apply to where they’re going.”

Investing in the Environment

Daniel Wiedl and Shea’lyn Hubbs spent the summer researching green, or climate, bonds. These bonds, which started gaining popularity in the United States in 2017, provide companies with the funding to pursue environmentally friendly initiatives such as renewable energy options, clean transportation, pollution prevention, and more. 

This combination of innovation and larger impact is what attracted Wiedl to the topic.

Shealyn Hubbs and Daniel Wiedl stand in front of a screen with a green slide on green bond performance
Shea’lyn Hubbs and Daniel Wiedl

“It’s something that’s going to impact us all whether we study it or not,” said Wiedl, a finance and economics major. “It’s been interesting to read into different projects that companies are doing through this green bond initiative and think about what this will look like in five to ten years.”

In addition to academic interest, Hubbs found a personal connection to the topic through her passion for sustainability and the environment. 

“This is something that is truly real world and matters to me personally,” said Hubbs. “I liked taking my experience in the classroom and really putting it towards a project like this.”

Both Wiedl and Hubbs had not participated in SURCA before but were encouraged to take on the project from their faculty mentor, associate professor Babatunde Odusami

“[Dr. Odusami] is one of my biggest supporters I’ve had during my time at Widener, and he really got me interested in SURCA and has been with me every step of the way,” shared Hubbs. 

The ultimate goal of the team’s project is to provide a baseline analysis of green bonds in the United States and determine whether this method of sourcing capital is beneficial to both the company and the environment, as green bonds are expected to continue to quickly gain popularity. 

After his experience, Wiedl plans to encourage others to pursue summer research, too. 

“As far as SURCA is designed, I can’t say enough good things about it. It didn’t feel like a burden or obligation, all the events were really fun. It’s definitely something that I plan on speaking highly of.”

Hubbs, a finance and operations management major who plans to attend graduate school before starting her career, credits the experience with helping her hone skills that she can continue to use. 

“Being able to take on so many different responsibilities and see the end project and be proud of it makes me realize that if I can do this, I can do anything,” she said.

Testing Material Strength with 3D Printing

First-time SURCA participant Jared Ware spent his summer 3D printing dog bones. Not actual treats for canines, but small, flat pieces of plastic that are skinny in the middle and wider on the ends. The dog bones are used in tensile tests to determine how much strain or stress they can take before fracturing.

Ware printed different samples at different temperature ranges to measure the overall effect.

Ware is part of Widener’s 4+1 mechanical engineering program. He will complete his undergraduate degree in May and remain at the university for an additional year to finish his master’s.

Ware was drawn to the SURCA program for the one-on-one lab experience it offered.

“I get a lot of theoretical experience in my classes, but this is deeper, hands-on, practical experience,” said Ware, who has also benefited this summer from working alongside not only faculty mentors, but graduate students, as well, who have offered him assistance and advice.

Getting experience with 3D printing will help Ware in his career trajectory. He is interested in pursuing computer aided design (CAD) and 3D printing in the automotive, medical, or construction industries.

As part of SURCA, students were invited to a panel with Widener alumni to hear about their career paths after graduating. Ware called it a great chance to “see how much you can accomplish in such a short amount of time.”

SURCA co-director Loyd Bastin, associate dean of sciences, said students benefit from the professional development built into SURCA, including hearing from “alumni across disciplines about their careers, choices to go or not go to graduate or professional schools, and how their experiences at Widener shaped their careers and decisions.”

Explore a Day in the Life of a SURCA Student

Jared Ware

@wideneruniversity Meet Jared, a mechanical engineering student doing summer research ⚙️#WidenerUniversity #DayInMyLife #SummerResearch #3dPrinting #engineering #MechanicalEngineering #tensile ♬ Summer day - TimTaj

Bella Kuehn

@wideneruniversity When your summer research project can help your hometown 👩‍🔬🔬 #WidenerUniversity #chemistry #ChemicalEngineering #DayInMyLife #research ♬ original sound - Widener University

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