PORTLAND – What is the best way to collect solar energy? How can we ensure the survival of the gray wolf? What was Leni Riefenstahl’s contribution to photojournalism? Why is fungal diversity important to forest ecosystems? What is the state of women’s activism in Iran?

These are just a few of the questions to be tackled Friday as students from the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine Community College present their stimulating research at our annual “Thinking Matters” symposium.

Since its inception in 2004, this symposium has enabled our campuses to showcase the diverse research projects of undergraduate and graduate students across the disciplines. Participants will present their work in the form of posters or oral presentations. 

Those attending for the first time will be pleasantly surprised by the range of topics, from the new technologies that enable town planning in Maine to the history of discrimination in baseball. Deciding which posters to view and which oral presentations to hear will make many attendees feel like a kid in a candy store.

Taking the form of coursework, community service, senior and graduate-level projects, much of the research at “Thinking Matters” is designed to improve the lives of Mainers. It engages populations in need of assistance such as the elderly and the homeless and it also engages important environmental issues.

For example, one collaborative presentation investigates the sources of the contamination in the Long Creek watershed in South Portland. The result of this research will help us manage urban runoff at Long Creek in particular and in Maine more generally. 

At the same time, “Thinking Matters” contains projects that reflect our students’ sophistication as “citizens of the world” who grapple with culture and history on the local, national and international levels.

Whether they are studying literary “trickster figures” or climate change, our students are increasingly savvy about cultural diversity and the intersection of local and global affairs.

As the pun in the symposium’s title suggests, the thinking that we do at USM and SMCC matters. Our students publish journal articles, start companies, write books and create art, among many other things.

One of this year’s participants, USM student Bethanny Araujo, has been doing groundbreaking work on steroid hormones in insects. She has a NASA fellowship to work with scientists at Ames, a major NASA research center in Silicon Valley. 

The title “Thinking Matters” also reminds us that thinking is not removed from the material world, whether it involves building new engines or reflecting on the beauty of photography. Our conference epitomizes the dynamic, active nature of thinking, the way it changes — and is changed by — our environment.  

Many research projects on our campuses “matter” because they advance science and technology. Yet the range of topics for our conference serve as a reminder that the etymology of the word “technology” goes back to the Greek word “techne,” which refers to a skill or craft.

For the Greeks, poetry, politics and music were often regarded as forms of “techne.” Indeed, the word “poetry” comes from the Greek “poeisis,” which means “making.”

The projects at this conference reflect the range of skills that “make” our world. Our participants have very different topics and methodologies.

Nevertheless, they have one thing in common: They depend on the skillful use of language that gives their work a meaningful place in the world.

One of the most famous representations of the act of thinking is Rodin’s bronze statue called “The Thinker,” a solitary man crouching in restful contemplation. In our distracted and hyperactive society, we need more moments like these. 

However, thinking is not in reality a solitary activity. While it requires what Virginia Woolf called a “room of one’s own” — a tranquil space for creative life of the mind — it always involves interaction and indebtedness to others, living or dead.

Woolf herself said it best: “For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”

We encourage you to join us Friday, not only to celebrate our students’ achievements, but also to see if those achievements might open doors of your own in the future.

Benjamin Bertram is an associate professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.