Jim Amidon — Tomorrow is my 45th birthday, which means exactly nothing other than that I’m now closer to 50 than I am to 40. It also means I’ve been working at Wabash College for more than half my life.
Indeed, it was more than half a lifetime ago when I spent three summers in Crawfordsville while attending the College. In those days, very few students stuck around in the summer, and the handful of international students who did mostly worked in the library or the gym.
I never had the opportunity to be closely involved with faculty or staff during my Wabash summers in Crawfordsville. Sure, I worked with my history professor, George Davis, for about a week on a project long since forgotten. One summer, my theater professor, Dwight Watson, asked me to help him with a staged reading of a play for a group of business executives spending time on campus.
But those experiences were much, much different from what’s going on at Wabash this summer.
At some point or another, more than 125 students will be on campus and involved in research, study, or immersion learning programs. We sent future high school teachers to Ecuador for a month of in-country study and teaching. A dozen guys are involved in the summer Business Immersion Program, which packs about three semesters of business classes into eight weeks.
There are about 20 students working collaboratively with faculty in Hays Science Hall alone. The biology, chemistry, and neuro-psychology research projects range from cell membrane permeability to tropical grasses to what in the brain causes someone to become addicted to drugs. In Goodrich Hall, at least another 20 students are doing research in math and physics.
These guys are not just go-fers fetching coffee or washing test tubes. We’ve got soon-to-be sophomores doing brain surgery on rats and juniors making real-world scientific discoveries.
In my time at Wabash, you mowed lawns, cleaned pools, or — in my case — worked at the local radio station in order to save up money for college.
Today, Wabash students are paid to work with faculty on their research. In fact, five Wabash faculty members received national research grants last year, which included significant funding to pay student researchers.
This year, we were approved to hire an intern in the Public Affairs and Marketing Office. We selected Kyle Bender, a pre-law student from Delphi, who was once an excellent high school baseball player before injuries forced him to hang up his cleats. Since he’s not barn-storming in the summer college baseball circuit, we’re fortunate to have him about 30 hours a week.
And like those students in Hays and Goodrich halls, Kyle isn’t sitting around making coffee (though I wish he would once in a while) or filing press releases. We’ve tried to expose him to the full breadth of the work we do in public affairs.
In his first week on the job, we had him write a blog, work on a video interview, and take photos — all to tell different types of stories about the new synthetic playing surface being installed at Hollett Little Giant Stadium.
Kyle had never done a video interview. He’d never written a blog. He’d never used a pro-level digital camera. We needed to teach Kyle how to do those things one time, and off he went, ready to roll up the sleeves and learn by experience.
Howard Hewitt has given him editing tips on his writing. Steve Charles has advised him how to listen well during an interview. Adam Bowen is teaching him digital video production.
Like all of Wabash’s summer interns, Kyle is learning while doing; it’s hands-on learning in the truest sense.
Last week we sent Kyle to Hays Hall to spend time with biology professor Amanda Ingram and her student interns. They’re doing NSF grant-funded research on tropical grasses, about which I know little and understand even less.
What we’re trying to do with Kyle is to teach him how to spend enough time and ask enough questions to understand the science, then turn it back around as a story for the general public (with photographs).
It’s one thing to write a story so filled with scientific jargon that an average reader never finishes the second sentence. Kyle will become a stronger writer when he both learns the science and then learns how to communicate the same science in an understandable, compelling way.
Unlike the student interns in the sciences, who will likely go to medical or graduate schools, Kyle Bender probably won’t ever become a PR guy or journalist. But learning to become a clear and effective communicator might just be the best possible preparation before he starts law school in a couple of years.
Now if I can just teach him how to load the coffee maker.