Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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  • Computing for Poets Literary programming

    A Wheaton course exemplifies the trend toward technology use in the humanities

    When it comes to digital humanities, Wheaton faculty lead the way. A number of professors are incorporating technology into the classroom and scholarship in novel ways, from the use of Twitter to extend and document class discussions on literature to data analysis of texts.

    On Sunday, The New York Times picked up on the trend with an article headlined, Computer Science for the Rest of Us, which highlights how information technology and computer programming is being taught to students who are not majoring in computer science.

    The article included an interview with Professor of Computer Science Mark LeBlanc, who teaches the course Computing for Poets, in which students learn the Python programming language and use it to create software that analyzes large bodies of text.

    The course is part of Wheaton's Connections curriculum. Through the connection Computing and Texts, the course is linked with courses on Anglo-Saxon Literature and the works of the Old English scholar and Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.

    Professor LeBlanc says teaching such courses together demonstrates the contributions that different disciplines make to studying an issue, and it serves a very pragmatic purpose as well: preparing students for professional careers. The New York Times reported:

    [LeBlanc] believes that most graduates of Wheaton, a liberal arts college, will work in fields where they must learn how to program. The liberal arts college offers “a safe place to be a novice,” he says.

    And LeBlanc could offer proof for his point, For example, English major Mitchel Edwards, who developed an innovative app for the Android phone, identified the course as one of his favorites.

    I really enjoyed Professor Mark LeBlanc’s course “Computing for Poets,” not so much because I am a poet, but because it showed me that I didn’t have to have a background in technology to pursue my idea.


  • karenmmccormack Cracking foundations

    Home ownership, the foundation of the American Dream, is showing signs of economic stress.

    The family home symbolizes the upward mobility and prosperity that forms the heart of the American Dream. But with the bursting of the real estate bubble and the ongoing global economic crisis, home ownership has slipped beyond the reach of many citizens.

    Sociology professor Karen McCormack studies the impact of the home foreclosure crisis on families and the way in which it has deepened inequality in our society.

    National Public Radio  turned to Professor McCormack for a commentary on the topic for The Academic Minute, a daily feature produced by WAMC in Albany, NY.

    In her piece, McCormack observed that the "dream" of home ownership may stand in the way of developing a more rational approach to housing policy.

    One result of this crisis may be a price correction in the value of houses, but perhaps it could also lead to a reconsideration of the meaning of home. Because we put such stock in ownership, good rental options are often not available. In ignoring other forms of housing, we frequently relegate the working poor to substandard housing, making families choose between inadequate housing or mortgage debt.

    Listen to Professor McCormack's full commentary:

    Women, Minorities, and the Foreclosure Crisis 
  • Revising the fossil record

    Prof. Kricher explains the meaning of an exciting new find from Panama

    The ongoing construction work for the historic expansion of the Panama Canal is changing evolutionary biologists' understanding of the evolution of species in the New World.

    Workers recently uncovered the fossils of camels, Aguascalientia panamaensis and Aguascalientia minuta, animals with a long snout that roamed the tropical rainforests of the isthmus some 20 million years ago.

    Associated Press writer Christine Armario turned to Professor of Biology John Kricher as one of several experts to offer perspective on the find. Her story was published by news media across the country, including ABC News, The Huffington Post and regional news outlets from Atlanta to Seattle.

    "It's pretty unusual to find camel remains that age at that place," said John Kricher, a biology professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts who specializes in tropical ecology and is not affiliated with the project. "It certainly is a significant find by any measure. And it rewrites something of mammalian deep time history."

    After the story was published, Professor Kricher elaborated on his comments. "The fossil record is like a chronological book with many pages ripped out. You try to fill in the missing parts of the 'story' (in this case history)," he said. "Every now and then you find a missing page or two and that discovery may rewrite a bit of the story. That's what happened here."

    "In the New World, modern camels are Andean, high-elevation animals, such as the llama and alpaca, or creatures of windswept grasslands, such as the vicuna and guanaco," said Kricher, an ornithologist and ecologist who has written extensively on the environment of the tropics and the Galapagos Islands that inspired Charles Darwin's work on evolution.

    "The current large mammal fauna of South America is depauperate compared to what it was as recently as 3 million years ago. Many species of large mammals have gone extinct. With regard to camels, we know that animals such as the llama are camels and must therefore be related to the little Panamanian fossils. And North America, before people arrived, harbored numerous camel species, now all extinct."



  • Literature for the ages

    Kiddie lit with cross-over appeal

    Not only has J.K. Rowling helped a whole generation of children learn to love reading with her Harry Potter series, she also has adults to re-discover the appeal of kiddie lit. Or perhaps she has demonstrated, to publishers' marketing departments, that some stories hold magic for people of every age.

    Whatever the case, some observers see a new trend in the rise of children's literature with cross-over appeal for grown-ups, while those with a longer perspective say Rowling's success marks a return to an older tradition.

    Writing for Toronto's Globe and Mail, essayist Jeet Heer puts herself squarely in the latter camp and in good company: She cites Professor of English Beverly Clark as an authority to back up her observation that the current intergenerational appeal of the Potter series and other "children's" books is a return to an older view of literature.

    As literary scholar Beverly Lyon Clark demonstrated in her superb 2003 book Kiddie Lit, in the 19th century there was no clear-cut and obvious division between kids books and adult books. Herman Melville was praised for writing novels that “a child can always understand.”

    Professor Clark adds, "My favorite illustration of the shift early in the 20th century ... is that 19th-century commentators considered The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn pretty  much equivalent, but in the 20th century one has been relegated to children's literature while the other is a leading candidate for the Great American Novel."

    As for that trend? Clark notes that there are a goodly number of recent kiddie lit cross-overs. "There's Twilight, as you mention. Hugo Cabret perhaps? (Indeed Charles Hatfield is a great source on graphic novels and other illustrated works.) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime--but that strikes me as the kind of novel with a young protagonist that has always been eligible for crossover (e.g., Annie John is an earlier example)."

    And next on the list may be The Hunger Games, the young adult series by Suzanne Collins and soon-to-be Hollywood blockbuster, points out Professor Clark.

    Wheaton's student-run Philosophy Club and Associate Professor of Philosophy John Partridge plan to host a Hunger Games Study Break to discuss the series.


  • On the road

    A spring break trip for the entrepreneurial class

    Ah, the road trip ... nothing could be more American. Unless, of course, you decided to improve upon the venerable tradition of Jack Kerouac, the folkways of generations of college students and families who can't resist one-upping the Griswolds.

    Imagine a three-day bus trip in which the passengers spend every waking minute dreaming up the next must-have iPhone app or can't-miss investment opportunity.

    Their personal Wally World: Austin's SXSW Interactive festival and the chance to win the support of investors in a business pitch competition.

    That's the StartUp Bus.

    The odyssey from Boston to Austin began at 6 a.m. this morning, and Ted Worcester '12 is among the 31 buspreneurs who are riding toward a chance to put their business plan into action.

    The web site BostonInno wrote about the Boston bus, which will be competing against bus-teams from New York, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Cincinnati, Florida, Louisiana, Mexico, Las Vegas, Washington and Mexico. It profiled some members of the hometown team, including Ted:

    Currently in his fourth year at Wheaton College, Worcester is working on the marketing team for SaveUp, a personal finance startup out of San Francisco that rewards people for saving and paying down their debt. (We love the sound of that.)

    Ted's looking forward to the trip, of course. "They describe this as the 'spring break for entrepreneurs.' It's definitely meant to be an adventure," he said. "We have stops along the way—Charlotte, Baton Rouge, and a big one in San Antonio where we meet up with the 10 other buses from around the country. I get the vibe that it will most definitely have the classic American road trip feel with a healthy dose of innovation and coding."

  • Education that works

    Championing the liberal arts

    When it comes to higher education, public debate these days often starts with the question of whether college is worthwhile. And the measuring stick most often used is whether graduates get jobs after commencement.

    In that conversation, programs with a strong occupational focus get most of the approval from the news media and politicians.

    The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine tackled the subject in a big way, devoting the issue to a collection of stories on the topic. The lead article, written by Jon Marcus, quotes Wheaton President Ronald Crutcher, who spoke up for the value of the liberal arts.

    In the end, says Wheaton president Ronald Crutcher, employers largely want what schools like his already teach, although he admits “it sometimes gets lost in translation.” He points out that Bureau of Labor Statistics research suggests that students graduating this year will have held more than 10 different jobs by the time they’re 38. “The truth is, things are changing so rapidly that, to thrive, you have to be an agile learner,” Crutcher says. “You have to be able to think critically, and narrow training for a specific job doesn’t do that. If you’re not focusing on those other knowledge-based skills, you’re going to be doomed to entry-level jobs.”

    The subject is not new to President Crutcher, the co-chair of a national campaign championing the importance of liberal education and a frequent commentator on the practical power of a liberal arts education. The liberal arts, he says, drives career success as well as intellectual satisfaction and civic welfare.

  • High orbit

    First-year student’s hypothesis may be tested in space

    Typically, the audience for an excellent term paper in an introductory science course for undergraduates would be limited to the student, the faculty member and a few friends and family members.

    First-year student Emerald Bresnahan's paper on the possible connection between the formation of a snowflake and the formation of galaxies has won a world-wide audience.

    Last fall, Bresnahan fleshed out an idea she had been contemplating for awhile to produce a term paper she wrote for Professor of Astronomy Tim Barker's popular course, "The Universe."

    What happened next, however, is extraordinary. She submitted her experiment to YouTube's Space Lab competition, where it was selected as a finalist from more 2,000 entries. That feat has prompted a number of newspapers, including The Washington Post, to write about Bresnahan's idea.

    If her experiment is selected as one (of two) contest winners in March, it will be performed at the International Space Station.

    The competition is decidedly international. More than 60 percent of the entries came from India; just 15 percent from the United States, according an article about Bresnahan published by the Attleboro Sun Chronicle.

    The fact that the rules of the contest required Emerald to film herself explaining the idea for a worldwide audience didn't deter her in the least, she told the Post.

    I really believe in my research and I wanted to share it with people. It’s always great to get younger people involved, especially in science. It’s an important topic that should be looked into by everybody, and sharing it could help find answers.

    Professor Barker agrees that Bresnahan's idea has merit. “Hers was the most highly detailed scientific paper I’ve ever received in that course,” he told the Boston Globe in an article published on January 17th [Note: article no longer available on the Globe web site —Editor.].


  • prescrutcherhires3-150x150 Online high school

    President Crutcher comments on the limits of distance learning

    The far-reaching impact of the Internet and communication technology has yet to be fully understood. Every week, it seems, a new business venture appears that applies the power of digital technology to a new arena, raising mind-boggling possibilities and new complications.

    One of the latest developments: online high schools established by colleges and universities. The New York Times takes note of this trend with the entry of Stanford, one of the recent institutions to embark on this new business.

    While Wheaton has not joined the rush to establish its own high school, President Ronald Crutcher's role as co-chair of a national campaign to promote liberal learning led the New York Times to talk with him about the trend.

    “From my perspective, colleges, concentrate on what you’re good at,” said Ronald A. Crutcher, president of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., who added that he had recently declined an offer from a for-profit education company to join other small liberal arts institutions in forming an online high school in their image. “Be consultants, but don’t contribute to a trend that I think has some real problems.”

    In more extensive remarks on the subject, President Crutcher has said that distance learning, itself, shows great promise.

    "Online learning has tremendous potential for extending access to education, but it has limits," Crutcher said. "This is true on the college and university level, but these limits may be even more obvious, given the age of high school students, and the importance of human interaction in their development. High school students are still developing in so many ways--intellectually, emotionally and socially as well as physically. A traditional high school provides students with opportunities to grow in all those dimensions".

    In other areas, President Crutcher has championed the use of technology in education. In fact, Wheaton and a small group of other leading liberal arts colleges are currently exploring the establishment of an online learning program in which courses would be made available to the students at each of the member institutions.


  • Where there's water

    Prof. Geoffrey Collins comments on finding water on one of Jupiter’s moons

    The possibility that life might exist, in some form, beyond planet Earth intrigues scientists and science fiction buffs alike.

    The latest findings by a group of NASA scientists who are studying Jupiter's moon Europa suggest that there may be large lakes, one of which holds enough water to fill the American Great Lakes.

    The research, which was published in the journal Science, inspired widespread international news coverage. Several journalists called on Professor of Geology Geoffrey Collins for perspective on the exciting new findings.

    News reports that quoted Prof. Collins included articles published by Sky & Telescope and the Christian Science Monitor.

    The team's new explanation "is a really interesting half-way point that is much more realistic," says Geoffrey Collins, a planetary scientist at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. "It's not just 'only liquid down here and only ice up there.' There are perched lakes or slushy areas in the ice shell that may be having a huge effect on the surface geology," he says.

    The topic is one in which Collins could be considered an expert. His research explores geological processes on the icy satellites of the outer solar system. He has been involved with various NASA projects such as the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn. A 2007 study by Collins and a research partner suggested that there is a sea of liquid water trapped beneath the ice on Enceladus, raising questions about whether the Saturn moon might feature other conditions favorable to life.

  • Brainy rep

    Counting the colleges with the smartest students

    We hate to brag about how great Wheaton students are, but we appreciate when other people are doing it.

    Case in point: The Daily Beast/Newsweek 2011 college rankings, which included a list of America's 25 Brainiac Schools.

    In order to find “where brainiacs flock and flourish,” Newsweek/The Daily Beast measured the number of scholarships awarded at each institution in proportion to its student enrollment.

    The list weighted students who have won the most competitive fellowships in academia. This includes Rhodes, Marshall, Gates Cambridge, and Truman scholars as well as winners of the Fulbright award, which is the largest international exchange program based in the U.S.

    Since 2000, Wheaton students have won 139 of these prestigious scholarships (not that we're counting).

    In compiling the list, the two publications also considered other factors, such as the percent of freshman in the top 10 percent of their high school class, the percent of applicants admitted, and SAT scores for math and reading using data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

    Five Massachusetts colleges made it on to the list: Harvard, MIT, Williams, Wellesley and Wheaton.

    Yeah, we love it.