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Research Increasingly Part of the Undergraduate Experience

Undergraduate research settings and subjects vary, opportunities span the globe

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December 1, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
Senior Sam McAleese visited Peru, Chile, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Tanzania and South Africa to learn the many ways countries work to preserve and manage their national parks. Photo courtesy of Sam McAleese
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Research, always a primary focus of graduate students, increasingly has become part of the undergraduate experience. At Northwestern University, funding and opportunities for undergraduate research have grown exponentially.

Nearly two decades ago, the Office of the Provost established a small grant program to encourage undergraduate research and funded the research of 24 students with $15,000. This past summer and academic year, the same program -- the Undergraduate Research Grant (URG) Program -- funded the research proposals of more than 160 undergraduates from every Northwestern school and college at a cost of $300,000.

"Today the program is one of numerous efforts supporting and encouraging undergraduate engagement in research," says Ronald Braeutigam, associate provost for undergraduate education.

Between the Provost's Office, the individual schools, Residential Colleges and sponsored research, Braeutigam estimates that last year close to $1.5 million supported Northwestern undergraduates engaged in research.

Research opportunities take many forms, involve students in just about every discipline and take place on campus and at locations across the country and in distant parts of the globe. Of the 83 summer projects funded last year by the Undergraduate Research Grant Program, more than a dozen were international in scope, taking students, among other places, to Poland, Argentina and Uganda.

Medill School of Journalism student Jacqueline Burns, a fluent Russian speaker, for example, last summer travelled to the former Soviet Union. She interviewed individuals who, as children, had spent time in forced labor camps (the gulag) to explore how the experience influenced their later lives.

McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior Drew Mitzelfeld highly valued his laboratory research experience last year with Mitra Hartmann, associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering. This year he organized the McCormick Undergraduate Research Society, which has a Web site where professors can post and students can find research opportunities.

Doing research challenges you in ways that class work doesn't, Mitzelfeld says. "In class, whether you do well depends on if you've done the reading. In the lab, you need more creativity because there's no set solution. You have to have faith and confidence. And when you're done, you get a bigger sense of accomplishment."   

As a sophomore, Michael Medford, a double major at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication, worked closely with Northwestern physicist Michael Smutko. He did so through a Fellow Assistant Research Award (FARA) program that for more than a decade has matched Residential College-affiliated faculty with paid undergraduate research assistants. 

In studying high-mass star formation, Medford learned that "research is messy, unpredictable and always an approximation. I was unsure if physics or theatre was where I wanted to invest my professional future." He now is leaning toward a career in physics because "I understand what professional scientists actually do. That's something that I couldn't learn simply sitting in the classroom."

"Research projects allow students to explore subjects outside the traditional academic structure of classes and grades," Associate Provost Braeutigam says. "When students ask a question and seek an answer, they transform from consumers of knowledge to producers of knowledge."

That's especially important in the era of the Internet, "which in many ways has eroded the quality of available information," says Joe Walsh, who chairs the Undergraduate Research Grant Committee and juries undergraduate research proposals. He has seen the quality of those proposals escalate in the five years he has served on the committee.

"One can't just accept whatever pops up at the top of a Google search list as good information," says Walsh, lecturer in Weinberg's Program in Biological Sciences. "When students themselves engage in research and create new knowledge, they learn a powerful lesson about the integrity of information."

Undergraduate research allows students to immerse themselves in novel scholarly projects and often serves as a capstone experience in their academic program. "It can help students determine whether they are interested in graduate work in a field involving research," says Braeutigam. "And it will help students become better prepared for the workplace, graduate school and prestigious fellowships."

Not surprisingly, Northwestern's increased undergraduate research opportunities coincide with a sharp increase in the numbers of undergraduates receiving prestigious graduate fellowships, including Rhodes, Fulbright and Gates Cambridge awards.

"Prior research demonstrates commitment to the research process and the gumption to get up and start moving," says Stephen Hill, associate director of the Office of Fellowships. "Increasingly, prior research is an ante-up necessity that not only makes an application more competitive, but, in many instances, also earns the applicant a place at the table in the first place."

Henry Binford, associate professor of history at Weinberg, served as advisor to Kristin Buterbaugh, who spent the summer before her senior year in Pittsburgh. She delved into an oral history collection of interviews with former steel workers and conducted her own interviews and research on Pittsburgh's deindustrialization. Today she is at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge scholar.

"Her work was a remarkable effort that would not have been possible without a research grant," says Binford. "She gained knowledge of the research process and carried out highly imaginative research tasks that made her an excellent candidate for the Gates Cambridge award. She had proved her abilities as a researcher and intellectual."

Facts about undergraduate research:

  • Between fiscal year 2002 and fiscal year 2008, the number of undergraduate students participating in sponsored research essentially tripled, and the funding awarded for sponsored research by undergraduates more than doubled. By 2008, close to 500 undergraduates participated in sponsored research projects at funding levels of almost $750,000.
  • More than 75 percent of undergraduates in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science spend one or more quarters doing significant on-campus research. A third participate in the Co-op Program, which pays students for working with or outright creating cutting-edge technologies.
  • In 2008-09, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences provided research grants to more than 80 undergraduates at just over $200,000. The Medill School of Journalism's Eric Lund Global Reporting and Research Grant Fund supports students pursuing projects in underreported parts of the world, such as Asia, Latin America and Africa.
  • The School of Communication provides grants to undergraduates pursuing projects of their own design and, in addition, through Innovation Grants encourages faculty to involve students in faculty research. The School of Education and Social Policy, which offers Alfred Hess Grants to undergraduates pursuing research, holds a yearly undergraduate research symposium highlighting student research from all Northwestern schools.
  • For more than a decade, the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) has offered undergraduates the chance to conduct social science research as research assistants to IPR faculty fellows. Open to freshmen, sophomores and juniors, the program begins with training in the basics of statistical methods and software.
  • Since 1998, the Residential Colleges (RC) has operated the Fellow Assistant Research Award Program (FARA), which matches RC-affiliated faculty with paid undergraduate research assistants. The popular program gets more faculty proposals than it can fill. This year, with $33,000 in support, 20 undergraduates are assisting faculty in their research.
  • Staff in the Provost's Office and Office of Fellowships work closely with students on undergraduate research proposal development. They provide advice on student projects, help students narrow a project's focus and discuss methodology. "There's a real teaching element involved," says Jana Measells, Undergraduate Research Grant Program coordinator. "Learning to develop a research proposal was something I didn't learn until I was three years into graduate school."
Topics: University, Campus Life, Research