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An English professor, a physicist, a photographer and a businessman walk into an underground lab. Along with them come a new interim university president, a dean of students, a director of admissions and a director of education and outreach. There’s also a physical science professor, a chemist and a biologist.

No, there's no joke involved. This diverse group of Black Hills State University (BHSU) academics visited Sanford Underground Research Facility (Sanford Lab) recently to learn more about the partnership between Sanford Lab and universities across South Dakota.

“Our partnership with South Dakota universities spans several disciplines, so it’s important for professors to understand the work we do here and the opportunities that are available to their students,” said Constance Walter, communications director at Sanford Lab.

With internship and research programs, Sanford Lab provides a unique learning environment in which undergraduate and graduate students work with experts from around the world to gain valuable real-world experience.

“As I was listening to one of the presentations, my mind went to all the opportunities for students. I was thinking about how our education majors should pay attention to this program, business students could do that, and look, there’s the graphic artist that I worked with two years ago, and that’s her work on the table,” said Jane Klug, dean of students at BHSU. Klug was referring to work being done by BSHU graphic design students for the Education and Outreach team at Sanford Lab.

One of the visitors was Dr. Laurie Stenberg Nichols, interim president at BHSU. Having just arrived at the BHSU campus six weeks ago, Nichols has been meeting with the university’s faculty and staff, even having dinner with the football team, to familiarize herself with campus.

She’s also been visiting BHSU’s regional partner organizations, one of which is Sanford Lab, and learning about the opportunities for students. After her visit, Nichols said there were two things that struck her as great opportunities for students: the Education and Outreach efforts and the BHSU Underground Campus (BHUC).

“It was fascinating to hear about the work being done by the Education and Outreach office, especially their curriculum units, the K-12 outreach and professional development for teachers,” said Nichols. “As I listened, I was thinking about how many broader impacts there might be in their efforts. I thought, ‘Wow, I could see this office getting larger and doing more.’”

Since 2008, more than 45,000 South Dakota students have been reached by the Sanford Lab Education and Outreach department. In partnership with BHSU, Sanford Lab’s science education specialists take world-leading science into classrooms through assembly programs and hands-on curriculum units that feature dark matter, neutrinos, geology and biology. The programs are designed to get students excited about STEM and exercise their curiosity, while providing additional teaching tools to science educators and meeting South Dakota’s Science Standards.

“And of course, going underground was fascinating,” said Nichols. “I loved seeing the underground campus and hearing from our very own faculty about the work that is being done there. The opportunity it brings students is what I'm all about.”

The BHUC houses Sanford Lab's low-background counting facility — a Class 1,000 cleanroom that houses several ultra-sensitive low background counters used to assay materials for ultra-sensitive experiments — and an adjoining workspace that can be used for a variety of disciplines. Managed by BHSU, the facility partners with groups around the globe to create unique opportunities for collaborative research in physics, chemistry, biology and geophysics. The campus is also open to graduate and undergraduate students doing research in a variety of disciplines.

“A university can only do so much on their own, in terms of time, staffing and money. When you can create these partnerships, it broadens, extends and enriches what you can offer to the faculty, to the students and ultimately to higher education,” said Nichols.

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