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Students’ lofty ideas on display at Clarkson research fair

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OGDENSBURG — Some people might say Robert Johnson’s head is in the clouds. He would be proud to admit it.

Mr. Johnson, an aeronautical engineering student, presented designs for hydrogen airship safety systems Thursday at Clarkson University’s 15th Annual Summer Symposium on Undergraduate Research Experiences.

“I’ve always been fascinated with airships,” he said. “It would be neat to see them in the skies again.”

Mr. Johnson explained that airship travel boomed in the first half of the 20th century but went bust in a series of accidents and the ascendance of the airplane as the preferred method of air transportation. Mr. Johnson said airships could make a comeback.

“If properly contained, hydrogen is nonflammable and noncombustible,” Mr. Johnson said. “After the safety issue is addressed, airships are more fuel-efficient, more maneuverable and can handle more bulky cargo.”

Mr. Johnson was among 100 presenters at the symposium, said Gregory C. Slack, Clarkson director of research and technology transfer.

“It has not been this large in the past,” he said. “We’re always trying to grow our undergraduate research.”

And for good reason. Mr. Slack said undergraduate research improves students’ college experience and prepares them for their careers.

“It is the ability for students to start the research process earlier in their careers,” he said. “It definitely gives them a leg up.”

In some cases, literally. Mechanical engineering student Nathan North’s work on a lighter, simpler prosthetic leg could be a technological breakthrough.

“I wanted to use summer research to get some experience in my field,” Mr. North said. “What happened is that we found a way to combine components on the prosthesis that could cut its cost and weight. At the end of it, I hope we will be able to bring it to market.”

Not all the research presented led to new discoveries or improvements, but that isn’t the point, said Jon D. Goss, director of Clarkson’s honors program.

“From my point of view it is exciting because they’re young, enthusiastic and energetic,” he said. “As undergraduates, they don’t have the pressure to conduct research leading to a positive result — there’s a much greater freedom, and that is a major advantage.”

Research topics ran the gamut from miniature robots to agriculture to biodiversity along the St. Lawrence River.

Kathryn Lawson presented research on the viability of cow manure as a medium to grow algae for biofuels.

“I was involved in research using landfill leachate as a growth medium, but we were having issues with the toxicity,” she said. “I grew up on a dairy farm, so I thought why not cow manure?”

Ms. Lawson said farmers might someday be able to use cow manure to create biofuel to power their tractors. The manure would still be a viable fertilizer afterward, she said.

“I learned a lot — how to work in a lab, how to set up and run my own experiments,” she said. “In classes, everything is regimented. You’re told when to do things. I had to set my own schedule. It was really independent work.”

Mr. Goss said fostering an enthusiasm for research is a good way for American students to bridge the gap with their international counterparts.

“It is about building experience in the science, technology, engineering and math research fields,” he said. “If they get on the bus, they’re jumpstarting their career.”

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