Q&A: Undergraduate Research CenterTweet
Binghamton University has recently established an Undergraduate Research Center (URC), which was one of the key recommendations of the Task Force on Undergraduate Education for the Digital Generation. Inside recently sat down with the center’s director, Janice McDonald, and Donald Loewen, vice provost for undergraduate education and chair of the task force, to talk about the new center.
Can we start with some background about why an Undergraduate Research Center is necessary and how it became a priority?
Janice – As director of the Office of External Scholarships, I’ve been working with students who are applying for scholarships and other awards. It became apparent that they need to do research, not just to be competitive for awards, but to help them define their future plans and to be able to write competitive essays for grad schools. I made recommendations in annual reports and then when the Undergraduate Task Force met, this idea was put forward. It was an idea that was out there, so it was something that started to develop and the task force is now bringing it to fruition.
Don – The great thing about the task force is that we had the chance to share this idea throughout the campus community and it resonated deeply everywhere. It was very apparent that it was something we really need to do and that it is something the entire campus supports − even former students and alumni and current graduate students. All of them, when thinking about undergraduate education, are saying, “This is really important.” We have had a lot of success with undergraduate research but once we analyzed it further, there was clear across the board response that we need to work on this.
Janice – We know the University and a number of departments and faculty themselves are doing a good job with undergraduate research, so part of what we have to do is tell that story. There is exceptional work happening in pockets on campus and we recognize that. What we want now is to broaden that across the campus so we can tell students about what opportunities are out there.
What is the first item on the agenda for the center?
Janice – We’re getting the word out, contacting all of the units this semester and asking them how they involve undergraduates in research in an organized way: Through a course, an application process or do students just approach a faculty member? We’re asking departments what undergraduates are doing in research, what faculty are doing in undergraduate research. Then our next step will be to make the information readily accessible to students through websites or working with faculty to encourage further research opportunities in their departments.
We want to establish the center’s identity and develop ways to be helpful not just to students, but to the faculty. We want the faculty to play a key role in shaping how the center develops and what services we can provide.
How will the center function?
Don – The URC is a connecting point for students who want information about research opportunities and people who can explain the value of these opportunities to them. Students will be able to connect with faculty to develop research relationships and find out about things like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute program for undergraduates. It’s a collecting point for what’s going on. We hope the center will become a stimulus, a catalyst for increasing the opportunities that are available, especially for disciplines that haven’t had as much undergraduate research exposure as they would like.
Will the center focus on particular kinds of research?
Don – Janice is working hard to collect information from departments. We’re hoping that will prompt faculty to think about creating more opportunities in areas where there hasn’t been much activity. Although we’re calling this the URC, we’re really aiming for the broadest range of research, scholarship and creative activities so students from any department or discipline can get involved. We’re looking at students doing independent research, but also working closely with faculty to develop as researchers.
Janice – We also know that students are capable of helping faculty and that, in turn, helps students develop as researchers. For example, Diane Sommerville, associate professor of history, had a student who did a summer internship. It’s the kind of activity that demonstrates how we’ll bring along researchers in the humanities and social sciences.
Has that process already started?
Don – Yes, it has. We recognize that opportunities for students exist unevenly across disciplines and so what we’re hoping to do with the center is provide a broader spread of opportunities for them. That’s what is behind the idea and the name of the Summer Scholars and Artists Program that will support undergraduate students for eight weeks of full-time original research or creative activities, carrying a $3,000 student award and a $1,000 faculty mentor award with it. There are opportunities for everyone, no matter the discipline. And we’ve just named our first recipients of the award: They are Phillip Emeritz, a junior majoring in history, English and Classical civilization who will work with Associate Professor of Classics Andrew Scholtz on “Romanization through Currency”; and Nora Holt, a junior majoring in geology and chemistry who will work with faculty mentor Professor of Geological Sciences Tim Lowenstein on “Seawater Chemistry of the Carboniferous.
The Undergraduate Research Center is intended to encompass all scholarly endeavors. It focuses on the notion of scholarly and artistic efforts, and it invites artists and musicians and humanities people to see themselves within this initiative, especially since for those kinds of disciplines there are really very few opportunities to pick your own project. This is a fantastic opportunity to develop a project with a faculty mentor. We’d love to expand this, but are getting a wonderful start this summer.
How else will you involve faculty?
Janice – We will have faculty fellows associated with the center, and they will help colleagues explore ways to bring more undergraduates into their research.
The Provost’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Undergraduate Research Mentoring has been created to recognize the importance of faculty to the success of students undertaking research. One award will be made each year to a full-time faculty mentor, who will receive an honorarium and have his/her statement on mentoring undergraduates posted on the center’s website. Can you tell us about this?
Don – What we really want to recognize is the tremendous impact that so many faculty have made here over decades. We have a strong tradition of undergraduate research in so many areas and it’s important to find ways to recognize that. This doesn’t happen without faculty. It’s essential we remember their commitment. Many have worked with students literally over decades who say it is absolutely the highlight of their professional lives. That’s so great to hear because it describes the willingness of faculty to invest that kind of effort in the lives of students’ education in a high impact way.
Janice – It can also be life changing for students. The McNair Program is an example.
An award has also been developed to recognize students: the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research. Two awards of $750 will be made each year to juniors or seniors to honor excellence in faculty-mentored research and creative activities.
Where can people learn more about the Undergraduate Research Center?
Janice – We have an Undergraduate Research Center website that we want to grow to include research opportunities on and off campus. We already have a lot of information on the scholarships website that will be copied over. I also work a lot with students for summer opportunities, so that information will be a part of it as well.
Where is the Undergraduate Research Center located?
Don – It’s located in the CIW Library now, off the beaten track, but once the Union renovation is complete, it will be right at the top of the stairs from the Susquehanna Room − more central and visible and located with other student support services as well.