Students Bring Joy of STEM to Ecuador

By Scott Craig   |   August 8, 2023
The Andromeda Galaxy (photo by Michael Sommermann)
Director Dan Jensen helps students assemble the “helidisk” project (photo by Brad Elliott)

Westmont engineering students returned to Quito, Ecuador, in May to share their love of science, technology, engineering, and math with children in an after-school program. The seven engineering students – Jonny Reitinger, Jonah Swanson, Jacob Bailey, Maria Judy, Elijah Cicileo, Becca Hudson, and Tasha Loh – designed and built STEM educational materials to share with the children. They were joined by Dan Jensen, director of Westmont engineering, and a Compassion International representative.

The educational kits consisted of small, hands-on devices that the children assembled and then operated. One kit emphasized understanding of energy produced from solar cells, a hand-crank generator, and a lithium battery. The energy was used to launch a “helidisk.” The other kit allowed the Ecuadorian children to write a computer program for a controller that ran a small, remote-control car that the children assembled. They then used their controller and RC car to race through a timed course while knocking over small bowling pins. 

Westmont, other schools, and Compassion International formed Christian Collective for Social Innovation, a partnership that operates the after-school program, Academia Matices. This is the second year that Westmont students have participated in the program. 

A Stellar Career in Physics

Michael Sommermann studied theoretical nuclear physics in graduate school, earning a master’s degree and doctorate at the State University of New York at Albany. He completed post-doctoral work at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign before joining the Westmont physics faculty in 1985. At first, he traveled weekly to Pasadena to conduct research with colleagues at Caltech. Then he began to broaden his interests to include astronomy and computational physics, establishing strong programs in both areas. He retired this spring after 38 years at Westmont.

Along with other professors hired in the 1980s and 1990s, Sommermann helped the college develop outstanding science departments. He obtained three research grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) focused on the dynamics of skyrmion interactions and collisions.

Jonah Swanson encourages a student driving through the racecourse (photo by Brad Elliott)

When the late George Bate retired from the physics department, Sommermann took on the astronomy class. He received another NSF grant for an astronomy workshop at the University of Colorado in 1993 and received a Westmont Faculty Research Award that year.

“Astronomy is a fantastic class for the liberal arts,” Sommermann says. He began working with Westmont’s old telescope, which George Carroll, an engineer at Lockheed and amateur astronomer, built for the college in 1957. “I thought it would be great to get a new state-of-the-art telescope, and we asked Colorado-based DFM Engineering to build one for us. The physics faculty worked together on a grant, and the W. M. Keck Foundation awarded the college $300,000 for the new telescope. The James L. Stamps Foundation and other donors also contributed.” Westmont installed the 24-inch reflector Keck Telescope, an F/8 Cassegrain instrument with Ritchey-Chrétien optics, in 2007 and moved it to the new observatory in 2009.

“Once the telescope arrived, I was eager to work with it,” Sommermann says. “I tracked asteroids, imaged supernovae and variable stars, and measured the light-curves of exoplanets, as the telescope has the capability to detect these objects. Capturing the Andromeda Galaxy was a particularly rewarding experience.” He also conducted observational astronomy research with students during the summer.

For many years, Sommermann taught astronomy and an occasional course about the connection between astronomy and Christian faith. Now astrophysicist Jennifer Ito, who began as assistant professor of physics at Westmont last fall, teaches these classes. Sommermann also led the monthly viewings at the observatory until Professor Emeritus Ken Kihlstrom and instructor Thomas Whittemore took on this duty.

Then the physics department considered how to strengthen its program. “As an outgrowth of our program’s external review, excellent physicists recommended that we add computational physics, so we did,” Sommermann says. “Working with powerful computers has become essential in many areas of physics. Because of my background in theoretical physics, I was charged with developing a course on this important subject.”

Sommermann and the Keck Telescope

Years earlier, in 1985, Sommermann secured the college’s first connection to the internet, then part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “I made a deal with Westmont,” he says. “They gave me money to move, and I asked to use it to buy this new gadget called a personal computer – it turned out to be the first PC on campus. To collaborate with colleagues at Caltech, a dedicated copper line was installed from my office, which ran down Cold Spring Road to UC Santa Barbara to connect to DARPA’s network. It was ridiculously slow.”

Until Westmont launched its new engineering program, Sommermann and other physics professors taught students majoring in engineering physics. “Now fewer and fewer students see a need to transfer and complete their training elsewhere,” he says. “They say they’d much rather finish at Westmont and go to graduate school. We prepare students to step out into the professional world with good job prospects.”

Sommermann has enjoyed developing his classes and working with students. He says that teaching computational physics has been particularly rewarding. “At the end of one of these classes, a student came up to me and said, ‘Now I know what I really want to do.’ To see a student get so excited about a subject and find a career is gratifying.”

In retirement, Sommermann says he’ll stay in Santa Barbara, a location his three children and five grandchildren enjoy visiting. He plans to dabble in the orchard and garden behind his home. Since he grew up in Germany, he’ll also spend more time there reconnecting with family and friends. And he hopes to contribute something at Westmont by teaching an occasional course, perhaps in computational physics, and working at the observatory.

“Westmont has been a wonderful place for me and my family,” he says. “My wife, Emily, has been an adjunct music professor teaching violin. I’m grateful and thankful to God for our time here.”  


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