Introduction to Student Research at UNK
Julie Shaffer and John Falconer
UNK has gained national prominence among comprehensive institutions for the many opportunities we have for undergraduates to engage in independent scholarship. Well-known publications—such as Shaping the Future (National Science Foundation, 1996), From Analysis to Action (National Research Council, 1996), and The Boyer Commission Report (Carnegie, 1998)—have argued effectively that engaging students in scholarly activity outside of the classroom is a powerful element of undergraduate education. UNK faculty have made this component of the undergraduate experience successful by supporting and encouraging students to take on the challenges of research and creative activities.
This issue of the CTE newsletter highlights how scholarship has been integrated into several departments. Kate Benzel offers a description of the annual Conference on Language and Literature, Bob Rycek discusses how psychology integrates research into their curriculum, Kate Heelan provides some comments on how students are developed for independent research in HPERLS, and Wyatt Hoback explores some of the challenges in mentoring student researchers.
There are, of course, many other formal and informal research activities happening across campus. Tailoring opportunities to each discipline is important, as students are learning about scholarship in their fields. We hope you find this information of interest.
Information on some UNK student research resources can be found in the links below:
Undergraduate Research Council: http://www.unk.edu/acad/gradstudies/research/urc/
Summer Student Research Program: http://www.unk.edu/acad/gradstudies/ssrp/
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Undergraduate Research in the Human Performance Laboratory
The Human Performance Laboratory (HPL) is located within the department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Leisure Studies in the College of Education. Undergraduate research is a primary objective of the HPL as it provides undergraduate students with hands on experiences that can not be learned within the classroom. Our program has been successful as we have dedicated faculty and students.
Typically students initiate interest during their Exercise Physiology course where laboratory experiments are conducted on a weekly basis within the HPL introducing them to research methodologies. Students who are inquisitive and demonstrate a desire to learn are encouraged to apply for employment/field experience within the HPL. Students may be asked to assist in ongoing research or service programs in the HPL as an introduction. In addition, all students working in the HPL must attend two weekly meetings. One meeting is a typical lab meeting such that everyone knows what is happening within the lab and the other meeting is a “seminar” where research ideas, questions and results are explored, discussed and created. Students who participate in this activity usually develop an area of interest and the faculty usually supports the development of a research project.
Prior to any students pursuing an undergraduate research project in the HPL, we require them to demonstrate dedication to the HPL. They are asked to complete an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application and are expected to obtain grant funds through either the Undergraduate Research Committee on campus, or the Summer Research program through either the Office of Sponsored Programs or the College of Education. Deadlines are set for completing these documents and revisions must be made in a timely matter. The student must be persistent, willing to work hard and have some abilities to complete these applications. If funding and IRB are awarded and the student has demonstrated a commitment, mentoring is provided. Most students work in the lab for one full semester before pursing an independent undergraduate research project. I believe the reason our program is successful is that the demand on the student is high, hence there is a commitment to undergraduate research. No documents leave the HPL without the approval of HPL faculty which requires most students to complete multiple re-writes and to dedicate time and effort to quality projects. In addition, the HPL team usually consists of 8-10 students and faculty, so there is a strong core of help. Students are expected to assist each other on all projects and to work together. This builds a strong team and enhances confidence and success.
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Conference on Language and Literature
The English department has sponsored the annual student Conference on Language and Literature at least for the past ten years. During this conference, simultaneously presented during UNK’s Student Research Day, students present on a variety of topics related to English studies: literary criticism, language study, teaching strategies, creative writing. Generally there are between 30-50 students participating in the panels and readings.
This conference offers students, including majors, minors and non-majors, the opportunity to present work from their courses within a professional setting. In this context they fashion their academic papers into an oral presentation following the conventions of professional conferences; pre-conference workshops initiate students into this setting. Each student is placed in a panel with other students speaking on a similar topic or theme. At the conclusion of the paper presentations, the panel coordinator will moderate a question and answer period in which students respond to more in-depth analysis of their topics. During the conference, students experience the importance of sharing knowledge and expertise gained in their courses with an informed audience; they experience the importance of academic discourse as a means of learning.
This conference offers multiple rewards for both students and their faculty: 1) introduces students to conventions of academic discourse; 2) encourages critical thinking and research skills; 3) allows students to experience the formal setting of academics; 4) gives creative writing students a forum for their works; 5) promotes interdisciplinary work in student research; 6) recognizes the mentoring activities of various faculty in the English department.
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Undergraduate Research in Psychology at UNK
Robert F. Rycek
Over 14 years ago, the Psychology Department overhauled its curriculum to include research as part of the undergraduate curriculum. After completing introductory psychology, most students take behavioral statistics followed by experimental psychology which provides them with the skills to engage in research. By the end of these courses, students have been involved in all phases of the research process. As juniors and seniors, students take two lab courses of their choice that are tied to specific cognate areas. While the lab experiences may vary depending on the particular course, most of them involve the development of a research project designed to expand our knowledge in the science of psychology. Within the span of a semester, students complete an independent research project that includes the formulation of a researchable idea, development of an appropriate method for testing the idea, data collection and analysis, and writing-up the project.
Often the project that had been developed in the lab class is carried forward to the next semester where it is further refined and prepared for presentation at a conference. In the words of Harry Kirke Wolfe, the students come for the grade and stay for the zest. Over time, it has evolved as an expectation within the department that students will present their work the semester following its completion. The department participates in a number of national and regional conferences that provide opportunities for students to present the results of their research. Faculty mentoring of students gets intense as the convention dates approach. Students rehearse and revise their presentations based on faculty critiques. Finally, students whose projects are particularly promising are encouraged and mentored in preparing their work for publication in either undergraduate or professional journals. Our success here has also been remarkable.
The Psychology Department 's curricular commitment to undergraduate research has created a culture in which students enthusiastically support the model and one another in their research efforts. Students have seen the value in undergraduate research and have developed strong portfolios that have helped them get into quality graduate programs and good jobs. The department consistently receives feedback from graduate schools that our students are among the best prepared for graduate study, which is important since over 50% of our students go on for graduate study. We take pride in the fact that 87% of our students who apply for graduate programs are accepted on their first try.
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Incorporating Undergraduate Students Into Research Programs
W. Wyatt Hoback
Undergraduates in Biology are required to conduct independent research to complete a senior project. These projects are mentored by a faculty member. These senior undergraduate projects represent an excellent opportunity to incorporate student research into faculty research programs. In Biology, I have been fortunate to advise more than 20 senior projects. The projects have ranged from collecting data on an endangered insect to counting microscopic crustaceans that are important to freshwater foodwebs. These data have lead to grant submissions and peer-reviewed publications. However, one must be careful in taking on undergraduate researchers.
Externally funded grants often have room to begin new investigations and generate preliminary data for the next funding cycle. Undergraduate students are able to learn a system, develop expertise in the literature and, with a little consultation with a faculty member, conduct novel extensions to projects. These extensions provide data for and can lead to new areas of inquiry within the faculty member’s specialty.
To maximize the probability of success, a faculty member and student should enter into a contract where there are explicit expectations. Despite the goal of an independent research project being for students to gain experience, often in grant-related research, a student is paid for conducting very specific research. As a solution I require the students to develop their own side investigation which generates not only expertise but also ownership. In constructing such a project, we aim high. I encourage all students to attempt to collect data sufficient for a submission to a peer-reviewed publication and thus far, three undergraduate projects have led to publication.
A faculty member should recognize that there are potential drawbacks to advising undergraduate students. The primary limitation is lack of specific undergraduate knowledge concerning a project. For example, I often encounter students that want to do a research project concerning an area in which they have not taken any classes. The learning curve is steep and by the time students are familiar with purpose and procedure, often the students must graduate. In contrast for graduate students, even if they spend a year learning the experimental system, they have a year to collect data. Therefore, it is best to select students who at least have a background in a subject area.
In addition to the limitations associated with a brief time period for undergraduate research, advising and allowing students to develop their own ideas requires a lot of faculty time and energy. This is especially true when a bright student pursues a project that is tangential to a faculty member’s expertise. One solution is to have a weekly laboratory meeting. A second solution is to allow graduate students to be intermediate advisors. In this case, the undergraduate student conducts research that is supervised by a graduate student and together, they produce a research project that may be included in a thesis or result in a peer-reviewed publication. By the faculty member supervising a graduate student and having frequent meetings to assess an undergraduate student’s progress, a research program can benefit and more importantly, a graduate student may gain experience supervising and managing workers. This experience is invaluable and increases his or her marketability upon graduation.
In conclusion, incorporating undergraduate students in a research program is challenging. It takes time, and requires resources. Undergraduate students are generally not prepared to work completely independently. Using graduate students as direct mentors and focusing projects to something in the funded grant are two strategies to make the collaboration more successful.
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Special thanks to John Falconer and Julie Shaffer for their work in putting together this newsletter!
Your comments and contributions are welcome!
Please send any comments or suggestions for the newsletter to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have information that you would like presented in the newsletter or would like to write something for one of the editions, please contact Jeanne Butler at 865-8495 or by email at the Center.