While most college students were busy sleeping off their hangover last Saturday morning, Dr. Mark Potosnak, an environmental science professor at DePaul, and his students were chasing down carbon level-measuring balloons in a cornfield.
“It just gives them a sense of how to do your own thing. It’s one thing to follow along in a book and do math problems and sort of understand, that’s great, but it’s much different to have your own project where you have to write your own hypothesis and design an experiment. You see the reality of it… and it doesn’t always work so smoothly,” explained Potosnak.
Dr. Potosnak has always been a strong advocate of getting students to think beyond the text book and look into how environmental science operates from a hands-on perspective. For the past two years, Potosnak and his team of student volunteers have been measuring the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at different points in the year in order to see the effect of the area’s agriculture on carbon dioxide levels throughout the seasons.
Recording and analyzing the data, a common classroom component, is only part of what goes into an experiment. Students are responsible for everything else too, which means figuring out how to build the equipment in a way that won’t bring down the balloon or freeze when it’s floating higher than the clouds or weigh it down to the point that it crashes.
Senior environmental Science majors at DePaul are required to submit a thesis, but students don’t only focus on the science aspect. Past projects include everything from environmental economics to communication strategies, allowing students to get field research experience on subjects they are truly passionate about.
Caroline O’Callahan, an Environmental Studies major in Potosnak’s Earth System Science class, heard him mention the opportunity in class, and decided to take him up on it. She had no previous research experience, but Potosnak encouraged anyone who might be interested to come along, and it sparked an investigative interest she previously didn’t know she had.
“It made research a lot more accessible to me,” O’Callahan said, “Before, I thought research is what all these really smart people do and I’m not one of those smart people, but now I’ve been on the trip, and now I know I can get involved in it. I could probably do this kind of thing on my own if I really wanted to.”