St. Olaf students embrace “irreplaceable opportunity” of summer CURI research
In laboratories and classrooms, riverbeds and historic churches, more than 100 St. Olaf students spent the summer exploring complex topics—and getting valuable experience at in-depth research.
From an examination of how psychology strategies can reduce anti-Asian bias to an analysis of how robots can communicate in remote locations, the 36 Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) projects completed over the summer represented a wide spectrum of academic disciplines and research areas.
Katherine Tegtmeyer Pak, professor of political science and Asian Studies and CURI program director, says CURI provides students with an “irreplaceable opportunity” to see what it’s like to be a part of in-depth, original research.
“It’s one of those experiences that best help students to decide what they want to do with their education and how to go about achieving their goals,” she says.
Among this year’s projects was Inclusive Grammar Guides for Student Writers, led by Bridget Draxler, associate director of writing, speaking, and academic support in the Center for Advising and Academic Support. Because many of the student researchers for the project are studying education, Draxler adjusted the work to have a greater focus on the English language in relation to K-12 education.
“I was drawn to this project because I wanted to learn more about how standard English infiltrates and affects the lives of students of color and multilingual writers and speakers, particularly in writing centers and classrooms,” Esterly says.
Draxler hopes that this CURI program will give students an opportunity to get a sense of graduate research or work they may enjoy. Blue Nawa ’24 conducted research as part of the TRIO McNair Scholars Program, a graduate school preparatory program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and sponsored by St. Olaf.
Hannah Swoyer ’23, who plans to teach English in the future, says the CURI project could have a lasting impact.
“I am excited by the possibility of our work making meaningful change in classrooms and English writing spaces, working to change the nature of expectations surrounding English writing,” she says.
Assistant Professor of Religion Timothy Rainey led three students in what he hopes will be the first phase of a major effort to preserve and digitize the archives of Black congregations across the country.
For the Black Church Archives CURI project, the students worked with two congregations with deep roots in the Twin Cities: Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Paul and St. Peter’s AME Church in Minneapolis. Rainey says the goal is to start to assess how those congregations have preserved their important documents and artifacts and understand what challenges or barriers they have faced in doing that work.
Many historically Black churches were founded in the 50 years following the Civil War and are now celebrating their 150th anniversaries. Rainey says that milestone has many congregations taking a closer look at their past.
“The elders are getting older, and they are also taking more interest in gathering, harvesting and thinking about how it is they preserve their history,” he says.
Ultimately, Rainey imagines building an accessible, digital archive where anyone could search through church archives to learn about their congregation, family or community’s history. The first steps toward that goal are happening this summer, as the students interview congregation members, gather data and analyze patterns in how the churches have done preservation work.
Monica Wohlhuter ’24 is studying religion and has enjoyed doing hands-on work to preserve historical religious documents in churches.
“It has been so remarkable to interact with communities of faith and to learn firsthand about how religion shapes human experiences and connects people together,” she says.
Rainey says unearthing and preserving the history of Black churches has wide-reaching implications, because the church was so closely linked with the wider social, economic and cultural aspects of the communities they served. He says the Twin Cities congregation members have been eager to share their own knowledge and stories with the students.
“They take a lot of pride in making sure the history, and the connections with the history of those religious institutions are recorded and not forgotten,” he says.
Professor of Norwegian and Director of Nordic Studies Jenna Coughlin advised a CURI project on Responses to Greta Thunburg in Comparative Perspective. Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist, started speaking on climate change at just 15 years old. In 2018, began a global movement, School Strike for Climate, to put pressure on governments to reduce carbon emissions. Thunberg has gained international recognition for the way in which she speaks on serious global issues.
The project is a continuation of work other students began with Coughlin in 2021 as part of a directed undergraduate research course (DUR), as well as through a Magnus the Good Collaborative Fellowship.
“In the (earlier project), students focused on creating educational materials about Thunberg,” Coughlin says. “This summer, students are doing more in-depth analysis of op-eds, which is allowing them to answer more questions and demonstrate how the database can be used to better understand the impact of youth climate activism.”
Coughlin says many students were drawn to the project because they are inspired by Thunberg, and how much she has achieved as a young woman and someone who “regards being neurodivergent as a source of strength.”
“The fact that such a person can be recognized as a leader challenges cultural assumptions,” Coughlin says.
Helena Skadberg ’23, who spent a semester studying gender and sexuality studies in Sweden, says the project could help inspire others to follow in Thunberg’s footsteps.
“I think the research our team is doing has the ability to create awareness and community around activism as well as foster individual and collective action around climate change,” she says.
Coughlin hopes that this research project can provide a database of multilingual, educational materials where students can learn more about Greta Thunberg’s activism. In addition, she hopes people will be able to learn about other young climate activists, including people of color and Indigenous peoples, who are often overlooked.