What does research look like to you?

Dr. Diane SnowDr. Diane Snow, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research led a recent forum of the Directors of Undergraduate Studies about Undergraduate Education (UGE) Programs of Excellence: Honors Program, Chellgren Center, External Scholarships, Gaines Center, Undergraduate Research, and the International Center’s Education Abroad.  The goal of their dialog was to:

  1. highlight all the ways each of the UGE programs/offices can support the efforts of Directors of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) in the departments; and,
  2. gather information from the DUS’s that will help UGE’s Programs of Excellence meet the needs of faculty and students.

During the discussions, a big question came to the fore: “What does research look like to you?” Since the University has research as its core mission, wouldn’t it make sense to expect all our undergraduates to have experienced research in some way? Do the faculty in this public research institution expect this? articulate it to their students? Also, how do we know that an undergraduate student has completed a research project successfully? Are the faculty in agreement on what this means in their own department – or for the University overall, across all the colleges?

Here are some examples of what is currently happening with undergraduate research at the University of Kentucky:
  • course-based  independent study and research required in an academic program, e.g., the UK Undergraduate Nursing Research internship (started in 2002 with NIH funding) of about 20 students per year, conducting an average of five semesters of independent study, create a portfolio of their work which is showcased at graduation.  They also are expected to give poster presentations, present at regional conferences, and many co-author peer-reviewed articles. The students start this work usually as 2nd semester sophomore but can also be exceptional freshmen.
  • program-based student research papers/theses, e.g., the Psychology Departmental Honors Thesis , an Honors Program Independent Project, or the thesis required for the UGE Gaines Fellowship
  • summer research activities with a faculty mentor (paid or for EXP credit)
  • independent study research courses, e.g., BIO 395 Mentored Research in the College of Arts & Sciences or HHS 455 in the College of Health Sciences

There are different levels of experiences that impact research skills: observation or shadowing, volunteering, application of research skills in guided experience, and independent research leading to a final outcome such as a poster presentation or formal thesis. All of these are important.

One issue still to be resolved is consistency of expectations of quality across all the 395 courses.  395s can be greatly varied: the same course number is used for short non-research-based projects, for observations, or cross-semester research work as well as for programmatic research requirements. Some time in the discussion was spent on the need for open publication of undergraduate research work (whether notes, data sets, posters) and formal papers/theses.  It was suggested that the departments could begin uploading, peer-reviewing and publishing undergraduate student research in UKnowledge.uky.edu, a data respository curated by UK Libraries. This would allow for a greater transparency in the process as well as the level of quality research work being done at UK.

Ideally, all departments at the University of Kentucky begin to consider how they might use UK Honors designation as evidence of “more challenging” experiences for our students.  The best case scenario is that a department offers its departmental honors awards as well as providing Honors-designated course sections for the general population of high achieving students.  For example, the department of Chemical Engineering is starting up a distinction program, which will serve also as an excellent way to include students who are upperclassmen in the UK Honors Program.

The group also noted that there is great variability in how faculty get rewarded for undergraduate research mentoring. If faculty get named as instructor of record in section of course, it should count as part of their Distribution of Effort in the Faculty Database. But, for some, e.g., in the College of Fine Arts, the independent study courses are seen as a sort of fallback for the student who has no other choices in the curriculum and the (often low) enrollment in the course is taken on as an overload for the faculty.

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About UK Student and Academic Life

Undergraduate Education is now recreated within the Division of Student and Academic Life in the Provost's Office at the University of Kentucky.
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