Monmouth College student Michael Andal (’26) explains how his group built an 8-bit computer from scratch during this year’s SOFIA program
In the three weeks leading up to the fall semester, students delved deeper into the life of 19th-century Monmouth resident Champion Miller—who was born into slavery but bought his freedom—as part of the college’s Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activities research program and Miller’s extended family, known as SOFIA.
The project was one of several undertaken by the more than four dozen students who took part in SOFIA. Many were first-time freshmen getting a head start on their education at Monmouth, while others were returning students who served as mentors and supported the respective faculty members who sponsored the projects.
The SOFIA groups presented their research at three Friday colloquia in August, as well as during a two-hour public presentation on August 20 as part of the college’s enrollment activities.
On the day the Champion Miller group gave their colloquium presentation to a packed Pattee Auditorium, other groups presented the genetics of odor and two types of climate: climate change in the natural environment — which required multi-day data collection at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in northern Michigan—and the campus climate for the college’s LGBTQ+ community. One of the latter group’s areas of focus was building safe spaces, and their efforts led to the creation of “The Rainbow Room” at the Center for Science and Business.
Research by Miller and Murphy
More than twenty years ago, Monmouth student Regina Bannan Johnson (’01), now the college’s director of student justice, inclusion and community, wrote an essay about Miller moving to Monmouth five years before the Civil War. Details of his life are not abundant – and no picture of him has yet been found – but there are more recorded details about his brother Richard Murphy, who has been the subject of much of the SOFIA group’s time and effort.
In addition to research by college historian Jeff Rankin, the Warren County Genealogical Society, and ancestry.com, the group heard a lecture by Knox College professor Owen Muelder on the history of the underground railroad in western Illinois and visited the African American Museum of owa .
Nyasaina Kwamboka, 23, a student at Monmouth College, addresses a packed Pattee Auditorium on August 19, detailing her SOFIA group’s research into Champion Miller and his brother Richard Murph’s family
The museum is located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is also where some of Murphy’s large family are based. The group was particularly interested in finding living descendants of Murphy and Miller. “We will contact them in the future and hopefully get a picture of Champion Miller,” said Nyasaina Kwamboka, 23, from Nairobi, Kenya, the group leader student and co-student manager at the Champion Miller Center. “We are not finished yet.”
“It’s something that’s never been told before,” said Dante Sardelli of Woodstock, Illinois, one of the freshmen in the group. “You have to talk about Champion Miller.”
A student from the audience thanked the group for their work.
“These are the stories we don’t hear about in the curriculum and we need to hear them,” the student said. “Projects like this help to achieve more advocacy.”
The group, which shared that Levi Marlowe, a contemporary of Miller, was the first black man to work at the college, also highlighted an inspirational quote attributed to Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Johnson is working with SOFIA coordinators and Monmouth professors Chris Fasano and Laura Moore to extend the project as an independent study for the 2022-2023 academic year.
“Miller’s research to date has not only shed some light, but has helped to better understand why so many formerly enslaved people settled in the Warren and Knox counties,” said Johnson. “In the entire history of Monmouth College we have never taken on a task of this magnitude as it relates to our early black communities.”
Debunking and debugging
Some of the other themes covered during the three week SOFIA program were lightning, politics, community arts and wearable technology. One group even demonstrated how to build an 8-bit computer from scratch. “I would say the computer is 90% complete,” said the project’s faculty sponsor, Robert Utterback. “It’s ‘running’ and showing some calculations, but a group of wires is missing and one chip isn’t working. We think it’s because they forgot to ground it for a while – a lesson we’ve learned. The project was ambitious for three weeks. I would say we needed three more days and another chip. At least one student plans to do some more work on it this semester.”
Utterback said the project has provided valuable lessons in a relatively short period of time.
“They learned that computers aren’t magic,” he said. “Computers are often thought of as ‘black boxes’ doing magical things, and learning about them can be overwhelming. There are many different components, but each individual component is not that complicated. By building their own simple computer—roughly similar to some from the 1970s—the students were allowed to peek under the hood and see that computers make sense.”
The time-consuming part of the project, Utterback said, was the “debugging.”
“Actually, it doesn’t take that long to wire up the computer, just like it doesn’t take that long to write code,” he said. “Inevitably, however, something was hooked up incorrectly or we had to make some small changes. These issues permeate the system and can be very difficult to find, taking hours or sometimes days to locate. You have to treat it like solving a puzzle and learn to enjoy the process.”