Endless Opportunity: Valpo STEM Students Pursue Multiple Passions
Thanks to the tenacity of Alison Norris ’17, Valpo is home to a chamber music ensemble nicknamed the “STEM-quintet,” enabling a group of five individuals with varying interests to incorporate their love for music into their arduous academic schedules.
“I chose to attend Valparaiso University for countless reasons — my mother’s alma matter, premier engineering program, and endless opportunity,” Alison says. “At Valpo, I have not only been able to explore my interests, I have been encouraged and inspired to do so.”
Alison, who recently graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, was a member of the Symphony Orchestra throughout her four years on campus. While Valpo’s music department offers an array of options for non-majors, when Alison sought to expand her musical involvement by joining a woodwind quintet, there were no openings for a flautist. Thus, with the approval of the music department, Alison took initiative to create an additional quintet.
“Many music departments are hesitant to allow non-majors to participate in their ensembles, but at Valpo, it is not only allowed, it is encouraged and supported by other departments and the University at large,” says Ericka Grodrian, D.M., assistant professor of music. “Students here are inspired to create their own opportunities. When students take initiative, some truly incredible and fulfilling things can happen for them.”
Launched in fall 2015, the quintet is comprised of all STEM majors — Brian Thomson ’17, mathematics major, clarinet; Timothy Henderson ’20, engineering major, oboe; Sarah Kuchel ’19, electrical and computer engineering major, bassoon, Janelle Wigal ’18, electrical engineering major, French horn; and Alison, mechanical engineering major, flute.
Entering its third year, the STEM-quintet is coached by Professor Grodrian, who assists the musicians in refining their pieces in preparation for performance. The ensemble has made notable appearances across campus and continually seizes new chances to perform for the community. Most recently, the group was invited to play for the College of Engineering’s National Council meeting. They also performed pre-concert music for the Christmas concert and played in Abendmusik, the music department’s largest and exclusive chamber music performance.
Alison’s determination opened up possibilities for her fellow classmates. The quintet members are able to experience their love of music in a new way and engage with members of the Valparaiso community through performance.
Janelle refers to the STEM-quintet as the “best part of her week,” attributing this to the fun, positive group dynamic and the high level of musicality they are able to achieve together. She is particularly excited this summer as the group has embarked on a tour from Indiana to Tennessee, hoping to impact other students who want to be active in music in college, but not necessarily as music majors.
From Tennessee, Janelle decided to attend Valpo as the University, unlike most other schools, was willing to assist her in embracing all her interests — engineering, music, and track.
“When I visited the music department, it was Professor Doebler who told me Valpo would allow me to do just about anything and everything I wanted to — the faculty and staff would make it possible,” says Janelle. “And now, I am involved in undergraduate research and a member of the Chamber Concert Band, the Track and Cross Country teams, Tau Beta Pi honor society, and the STEM-quintet.”
Reluctant to join the STEM-quintet initially, Brian now says the quintet is his favorite music ensemble of all time. He expresses gratitude for his Valpo experience, attributing Valpo with his ability to pursue varying interests, specifically, the power to “bridge the gap” between mathematics and music. Additionally, at Valpo, he has been able to fully embrace his “love” for education, no matter the field.
“The other STEM-quintet members may have chosen to attend Valparaiso University for its technical programs, but it was the liberal arts tradition that brought me here,” says Brian. “While I have delved deeper into mathematics than I ever thought I would, I have also been able to explore any and every class that interests me.”
For Brian, this “power of choice” afforded him the freedom to take a variety of courses and explore whatever topics compelled him.
The College of Engineering further enabled Alison to combine her two passions, music and engineering, through a research experience, requiring her to write computer code that randomly generates sample pieces of music. Alison was challenged with the task of writing code that will determine when one piece of music is better than another piece of music. Through her program, Alison assigned a “fitness” value to each sample of music and fed it different criteria to improve their fitness value.
“As I’ve gotten to know Alison, it has become evident that she has multiple interests, often feeling compelled to pursue one or the other,” says Peter Johnson, Ph.D., department chair and associate professor of mechanical engineering. “In order to connect her interests, I enlisted Alison to work alongside me on a research project. She possesses the engineering tools and strong musical background to really excel in this endeavor.”