December 4, 2022
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The immediate impact of the Source Project

First-year students gain research experience in humanities and social sciences

Jessica O'Keefe, a first-year student taking part in the Source Project, presents a project on low-income housing in Binghamton during her Discovering Place: Binghamton as a Laboratory for Environmental Studies class. Jessica O'Keefe, a first-year student taking part in the Source Project, presents a project on low-income housing in Binghamton during her Discovering Place: Binghamton as a Laboratory for Environmental Studies class.
Jessica O'Keefe, a first-year student taking part in the Source Project, presents a project on low-income housing in Binghamton during her Discovering Place: Binghamton as a Laboratory for Environmental Studies class. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

Sitting in a New Hampshire Starbucks in February 2018, Bryn Lauer examined an envelope she received from Binghamton University.

“Since I had been accepted into the University weeks before, I was curious as to why another letter was sent to me,” she says.

The Durham, N.H., native opened the mailing and learned that she was invited to take part in a new Binghamton University initiative called the Source Project — a course-based program offering two semesters of humanities- and social-sciences-related research experience to first-year students.

“I called my mom immediately to tell her all about it,” Lauer says, “and how excited as well as appreciative I felt knowing that Binghamton would consider me to take part.”

Now in its second year, The Source Project has given Lauer and more than 100 other first-year students a way to develop academic and communication skills in areas such as human rights; human nature; and people, politics and the environment.

“Binghamton has long recruited outstanding students who are passionate about the liberal arts,” Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Donald Nieman says. “The Source Project offers these students the opportunity to engage in original research the day they set foot on campus. It’s a visionary program that differentiates Binghamton, making us the preferred destination for the best and brightest and assuring that our students have rich, challenging opportunities to grow intellectually and personally.”

Source origins

The Source Project was inspired by Binghamton University’s First-year Research Immersion program, which has given hundreds of incoming students the opportunity to conduct research in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields since its inception in 2014.

The prospect of expanding first-year, high-impact learning to humanities and social-science students was one of the reasons Valerie Imbruce ‘99 accepted the position of director of the Undergraduate Research Center and Office of External Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards in 2017.

“The evidence is clear that students who start research early will develop the ability to think critically, communicate and work collaboratively,” says Imbruce, who leads the Source Project. “Research can be a gateway to finding paths to different majors and careers and provides a strong foundation for our undergraduates’ education.”

Imbruce pitched the concept to faculty members and found two willing to step in for the 2018-19 pilot year: Nancy Um, a professor of art history, and Alexandra Moore, a professor of English and co-director of the Human Rights Institute.

“I have no doubt that (Um’s) involvement helped solidify the first ‘experimental’ year of the Source Project,” Imbruce says. “She has a lot of credibility and is respected in the classroom. … The way (Moore) teaches human rights in the Source Project is the way she teaches it in graduate-level classes. She doesn’t expect anything different from her undergraduates.”

Teaching a class called Artifacts of Human Migration provided Um with “a great laboratory to engage in pedagogical experimentation.”

Instead of lecturing to a large group of students, the Source Project allows an instructor to build connections with a class of up to 25 students over the course of an academic year.

“The Source Project turns the (lecture class) structure upside-down and says: Let’s start with research,” Um says. “When you give students a problem to solve, they can engage in a different way rather than through a passive absorption of material. These are students willing to embark on a different way of learning.”

Moore, who teaches Human Rights Concepts and Methods, agrees with Um about new pedagogical opportunities and adds that the Source Project enables her to introduce students to the work colleagues are doing in different departments.

“We have many guest lecturers and research mentors who can demonstrate to students in their first semester at Binghamton University what a dynamic research institution it is,” Moore says. “This means introducing students to departments and fields they may have never considered previously and showing by example and experience what research looks like outside the lab.”

That variety and dynamism is on display in 2019-20, with the addition of two new Source Project streams. Um bowed out to serve as an associate dean in the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, but Imbruce and Robert Holahan (an associate professor of political science and environmental studies) are teaching Discovering Place: Binghamton as a Laboratory for Environmental Studies. Kathleen Sterling, an associate professor of anthropology, is leading a class called Human Nature.

“We believe that the humanities are a wonderful way to prepare students for a flexible, long-term, productive career by giving them the fundamental skills that will allow them to adapt to changing work environments and conditions, and new jobs that haven’t appeared yet,” says Donald Loewen, vice provost for undergraduate education and enrollment management.

Recruitment and rewards

Participation in the Source Project is by invitation only, as the University’s admissions team looks for signs of interest early in the recruitment process. Students who accept the invitation are then enrolled in their chosen research stream. They spend their fall semester learning about research methods and theories, while the spring is spent doing a project that can be presented at the University’s annual Research Days celebration or in a University publication. Participating students have come from 10 states, as well as China and the Netherlands.

For admissions, 2019 was “the first time we could go out and say: It doesn’t matter what you are interested in doing, Binghamton University has a chance for you to participate in a real research stream in your first year on campus,” Loewen says.

“Going out with that message distinguishes us from other universities in a positive way. We are offering opportunities you can’t find elsewhere.”

It was an opportunity too good for Priya Desai to pass up. She is part of the Discovering Place stream and is researching the effects of IBM’s departure on the village of Endicott, N.Y.

“My interest stemmed from my desire to learn about the place I was going to live in for the next four years, as well as working to incorporate it into my research and education,” the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native says. “I accepted the offer with the excitement that I would be able to conduct my own research at such an early start and explore on my own what I wanted to focus on. Not many classes allow us to do that!”

Other students have gone on to projects ranging from helping Um develop a campus art exhibition to presenting at the Technologies of Human Rights Representation Conference, a SUNY Conversation in the Disciplines conference held at Binghamton University.

Students also benefit from spending an academic year in a 25-person community that strengthens their connections to classmates and the faculty member, Loewen says.

“The consistency across your first year in college in a relatively small group in which you can develop long-lasting relationships helps build an undergraduate sense of community and belonging on campus,” he says.

With the number of research streams rising to six in 2020-21, the Source Project will enable 150 students to explore the human experience.

“This is an innovative, rigorous academic program that showcases the best of what we do at Binghamton University in the humanities and social sciences,” Imbruce says.

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