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Honors Projects Offer Opportunity to Learn and Apply

warcewicz honorsTroy Warcewicz ’12 has made service or study trips during his cadetship to Guatemala, Egypt, and Morocco. In each of these places, he noted that many people lack basic necessities taken for granted in the United States. 

That got him thinking. Can a cheap and readily available resource, such as sand, be used to provide clean water in developing countries where water itself may be scarce and clean water broadly unavailable?

Warcewicz took this idea to Maj. David Johnstone, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and he assisted as Warcewicz designed an apparatus, a four foot long clear PVC pipe using both sand and sponges as a filtering mechanism. They tested it in a real-world lab – the Maury River.

“We ran it over a two-week period,” said Warcewicz. “The Maury is an awesome sample … because it has a lot of agricultural runoff and coliform – [an indicator of] something people get sick from in water in developing countries.”

The two sampled inflowing and outflowing water every couple of days, testing it for organic and bacterial contamination and turbidity, which is particulates floating in the water. The apparatus worked better on turbidity than on bacteria, and, Johnstone said, more time in a lab, with testing and redesigns, along with the addition of readily available chlorine tablets, might produce a workable device. But for Johnstone and Warcewicz, that really wasn’t the point.

“I think this was an excellent project,” said Johnstone. “It got the student to think outside of the norm. He wasn’t told what to do; he had to apply what he had learned. The different testing parameters – he had to understand how they worked.”

“I learned a whole lot,” confirmed Warcewicz, whose classes have focused more on topics like construction management than on environmental engineering and hydrology. “So I learned a ton just reading up on this stuff and getting down in the lab and learning how to test – what you’re looking for, how [bacterial] colonies grow.”

In addition to learning the necessary biology and soil science, Warcewicz said the project gave him the opportunity to use in the field concepts he has learned over the years in the classroom.

“Water flowing through in class is a simple equation, but in life, not necessarily,” he said. And for every problem he encountered, he had to find a solution. “I either had to go to a book or articles or a professor here.”

Warcewicz was one of 15 cadets in VMI’s Institute Honors program to present a senior thesis during Honors Week, March 23-29.
“The presentations are open to the entire post,” said Col. Rob McDonald, associate dean of the faculty. “We have a really good turnout for them.” Honors cadets must attend two presentations, he said, but many attend more, and faculty from the academic departments and the ROTC units also turn up.

“This year’s class was really phenomenal,” added McDonald. “The quality of the projects that are done for Institute Honors – it’s more than just a nice, long term paper or lab report. Cadets are involved in making new knowledge in their disciplines.”

Those Honors cadets graduating in May will have an opportunity to revise their papers, taking into account questions and comments they received at their presentations. Subcommittees of the Institute Honors program will read every thesis and provide a holistic response to the cadet. The best theses are selected for special awards.

Honors Week was designed to highlight academic excellence across post – offering a special week when cadets could meet the requirement to defend their theses and academic honor societies could hold inductions. The kickoff event is a special faculty lecture.

In this year’s lecture, “The Historian, the Sailor, and the Rickshaw Puller,” Col. Mark Wilkinson, VMI professor of history, told how the course of history was affected by one American sailor stationed in China just following World War II and one resident of Shanghai. He used that story to discuss the work that historians do and the lessons cadets might draw from it, especially those headed overseas for military or civilian careers.

“He took a very particular topic that has been of interest to him in his historical research and he talked to us about it in a way that made us understand why this topic mattered in his discipline,” observed McDonald. “It’s helpful in terms of community, to help everybody understand what we all do. That might be the most impressive thing about that lecture.”

While Honors Week has been in existence for about eight years, the faculty lecture is a relatively new addition. Wilkinson’s talk was just the third in the series.

Approximately 85 cadets are enrolled in the 10-year-old Institute Honors program, which, McDonald said, has experienced a burst of interest in recent years. The program offers cadets a unique opportunity to work closely with faculty mentors.

“Almost more important than selecting the topic of your thesis is choosing your faculty adviser,” said McDonald. “That mentor-mentee relationship can be a very profound experience, in terms of shaping you intellectually, in terms of your work ethics, in terms of shaping you professionally.”

By:  Sherri Tombarge
IR - May 2012