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Push for research underway

Joe Trombello | Friday, October 7, 2005

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series examining the presence and future of undergraduate research within different colleges at Notre Dame.

In the wake of University President Father John Jenkins’ inaugural address calling for an increase in the number of undergraduates involved in research, representatives from a number of colleges indicated that undergraduates are taking part in research activities but stressed that more work needs to be done to promote and fund research opportunities.

Provost’s office

Vice president and associate provost Dennis Jacobs said one of the challenges in discussing undergraduate research is accurately identifying the percentage of undergraduates who are currently involved.

According to the 2004 senior exit survey, 30 percent of graduating seniors identified themselves as having worked on undergraduate research with a faculty member at some point during their four-year tenure.

However, in counting the number of students who sign up for academic credit in research, special studies or a senior thesis, only 10 percent of Notre Dame students are currently involved in research. Jenkins cited this 10 percent figure in his inauguration speech as evidence that more undergraduates need to be involved in research.

“The Provost’s Office is studying the extent to which undergraduate research is currently taking place, investigating in what areas student demand outstrips available opportunities, and exploring what resources could be leveraged to strategically seed greater research opportunities for undergraduates,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs stressed the benefits of undergraduate research as allowing students to pursue novel lines of inquiry.

“In my own experience … being involved with this kind of work is one of the more authentic ways of learning because it presents all the richness … of real problems without all the answers,” he said. “It requires students to think creatively about how we generate new knowledge.”

Jacobs laid out a four-stage framework for the promotion of undergraduate research. The first step is a new Web site -undergradresearch.nd.edu – that has been live since this week.

The Web site lists funding and mentoring opportunities available to students in four dimensions: internships, research and travel grants, fellowships and opportunities by academic departments.

“My hope is that students will visit this site early and often,” Jacobs said.

He also stressed that the Web site could be valuable for prospective students to learn that “when they come to Notre Dame, they are entering a research University.”

The second stage of promotion – to be completed by early spring 2006, Jacobs said – will be a more expansive version of the “opportunities by academic departments” tab. Students will be able to search that Web site by keyword, and individual professors can add specific information about current research projects.

“Professors can go online and post a description of that project that would appear to be almost like an ad,” Jacobs said.

Stage 3 will involve collaboration with the library to host a Web space where selected undergraduate research projects will be displayed. Such examples may include a senior thesis as a word document or a collection of jpeg images from an art project. Jacobs said he hopes this portion will be completed by the end of the spring 2006 term.

“Whatever they [students] work in, we want to find a way to archive it and display it. Today a lot of good work is lost or gathers dust on a shelf,” Jacobs said. “This is a way of making it more publicly available. My hope is that it will help more students think about being involved in undergraduate research.”

The final promotional step plans for a University-wide research and creativity fair to exhibit undergraduate research. Jacobs said these displays would take place by department, noting that there would not be one comprehensive display time or location. However, he said all colleges and departments could allow for student presentations over a several week period.

“Hopefully we can make some attempt at this by spring 2006,” he said.

Jacobs said his office is currently attempting to determine where undergraduate research experiences are not as prevalent and to find ways to increase funding in those areas.

“I understand that opportunities are not uniformly available to students in all majors … certain areas have more opportunities than others,” he said. “Where it is not happening [we] will work to see if there are ways to seed opportunities.”

Arts and Letters

Gretchen Reydams-Schils, director of the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, said the College of Arts and Letters is at the forefront of sponsoring undergraduate research.

“The College of Arts and Letters is ahead of the game at this point,” she said.

Reydams-Schils directs the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), a college funding agency that provides grants for undergraduates to travel to conferences, conduct their original research, travel to undertake research, or stay in South Bend for the summer to work on research projects with a professor.

Interim grants of up to $1,500 provide support for conducting original research or conference travel, while the summer grants provide $1,200 per month for up to three months to permit students to earn income while assisting a professor with summer research or to travel to conduct research during the summer.

The 2004 Dean’s Report said UROP funded 103 student grants for a total of $145,221 during the 2004-05 academic year. The Report notes that this total does not include some students who are supported by faculty grants through such agencies as the National Science Foundation. A survey of undergraduate research revealed that 15 percent of Arts and Letters students participated in a research project in 2004-05, the Dean’s Report said.

Reydams-Schils said the College made undergraduate research a priority after a report on undergraduate education at research universities called the Boyer Report was released in 1998.

The report stressed that universities could do a better job of funding and promoting undergraduate research. She said UROP grant applications have increased significantly in the last three years.

“[Undergraduate research] is part of a major developmental initiative on the part of the college,” she said. “We are also looking at endowed contributions [to provide additional funding].”

Reydams-Schils said in addition to a Web site that explains the UROP program, her office is working on further ways to promote the opportunities.

A presentation from past UROP winners will be held Nov. 3, and Reydams-Schils said she speaks to individual classes or departments whenever asked by an instructor or department chair. The College is also working with the College’s Office of Publicity, News and Information to promote UROP through a video.

Reydams-Schil stressed the importance of research for undergraduates.

“Undergraduate research brings the teaching and research together,” she said. “It allows one to make stronger connections between teaching and research, to make faculty think about how to bring research into teaching and undergraduates to see how research relates to teaching.”

She also said research and teaching do not need to be at odds with each other.

“I think it is wrong to see teaching and research pitted against each other. The best research is done in connection with teaching concerns,” she said.

Mark Roche, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said students are also involved in non-UROP-funded “research” projects like a senior thesis or an art exhibition. He said 14 out of 18 departments within the College currently have an honors program that involves a major paper or senior thesis.

Roche said undergraduate research will continue to be a priority for the College and is, in fact, the number one developmental priority.

“There will be more funding with or without Father Jenkins’ largesse,” he said.

Since only 18 percent of UROP applications were accepted last year, Roche said he would like to increase the number of funded summer grants. He also said some individual departments have also received endowments that can fund undergraduate research.

Research involvement, Roche said, is an essential part of undergraduate education.

“Those experiences tend to be the most formative and memorable experiences of their undergraduate days,” he said.