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SEAS initiative adds undergraduate research opportunities in course curriculums

Grace Hromin | Senior Photo Editor
Associate professor Ekundayo Shittu, left, and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies Jason Zara, right.

A multi-university initiative that includes the School of Engineering and Applied Science added research opportunities for undergraduates into course curriculums last year.

The Research for All program — which two SEAS professors founded in 2022 — is in its second year of a three-year, $2 million Kern Family Foundation grant program focused on helping students find research projects. Jason Zara, one of the founders, said in the past two years one professor in each of SEAS’ six departments has implemented course-based undergraduate research experiences, or CUREs, into their classes to give undergraduate students, who often lack formal research opportunities, a chance to gain experience in research.

“The goal of the project is not actually the conduct of the research,” Zara said. “It is helping to build an infrastructure to facilitate better interactions between undergraduates and research laboratories and more equitable access to those opportunities.”

Zara, the associate dean for undergraduate studies in SEAS, said mechanical engineering students in the Anatomy and Physiology for Engineers course use ultrasound technology to monitor hormone releases in the body as a CURE. He said students taking the biomedical engineering department’s Thermodynamics course test the vulnerability of the District’s infrastructure to extreme weather events.

He said students in the past two years filled out surveys about the research after completing the research curriculum in their classes and that once the data is processed, officials will use the responses to guide them in the implementation of CUREs into curriculums for more SEAS courses next year.

“These are meant to be kind of the gateways so that we can hopefully, after year three, be able to say any student who comes through the School of Engineering and Applied Science will get an exposure to undergraduate research through their coursework,” Zara said.

Zara said the “Research for All” program is made up of three groups — URCurious, URConnected and URSkilled — each containing three participating universities. GW, along with George Fox University and the University of Washington, Tacoma, concentrated its research within the URCurious aspect, which aims to increase undergraduate students’ interest in research opportunities through initiatives like CUREs.

The University of North Carolina and Campbell and North Carolina A&T State universities are involved in URSkilled, while Olin College of Engineering and Baldwin Wallace and Valparaiso universities are working on URConnected.

Zara said students participating in the program have understood how their course concepts apply to research better through the CUREs program compared to solely class lectures. He said students can connect information they learn from lectures to practical uses through hands-on experimentation they would conduct in a laboratory environment.

“They all report a better understanding of research and what research really is, what happens in research projects,” Zara said. “The hope is they will also show a better connection to the materials that they’re learning and the research in the course because applications is everything.”

Zara said GW and eight other universities have been implementing the URCurious, URConnected and URSkilled initiatives in different ways to accommodate differences in the universities. He said GW faculty are implementing the CUREs as weeklong parts of courses while other universities that operate on different schedules are doing semesterlong CUREs.

Zara said he hopes by the end of the third year of the program in 2025, all of the initiatives will be available at all participating universities since the universities are currently implementing them in different ways.

Zara said all nine participating universities will hold workshops later this month where the leaders of each program will share the projects that had the most student engagement on their campus so other partner universities know which projects to implement. He said program staff will provide an implementation plan on research opportunities for each university at the end of May.

“The hope is that if we can build something that is implementable in some form at these nine institutions, it should be implementable anywhere because we have a range of size, we have a range of student population, we have a geographical diversity, all sorts of things,” Zara said.

Jeff Dusek, an associate professor of engineering and the principal investigator for the project at Baldwin Wallace University, is working on URConnected along with colleagues at Olin College of Engineering and Valparaiso University. He said the URConnected group is focused on connecting students with faculty-led research opportunities through increasing access to common applications for research for students.

“One of the explicit goals was to not just have a job board,” Dusek said. “Job boards are very passive. You post something and it’s kind of the onus is on the student to try to find the position, reach out. And I would say one of the things we’re really trying to do with the URConnected piece is more of a relationship building.”

Dusek said Baldwin Wallace and other partner universities created “personas” or models of students of different demographics based on responses to a student survey on how they would like the university to increase research opportunities. He said faculty leaders then used those models to design websites and applications with research opportunity listings that these models of students would best interact with.

“One of our main takeaways is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, right?” Dusek said. “So we’re trying to create this virtual environment and often you think this website is going to be equally useful to everyone, but institutions are just really different from each other.”

Richard Goldberg, an associate professor and the director of undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he is leading the third component of the project, URSkilled, which is implementing workshops for students to gain skillsets necessary for research and mentorship training workshops for faculty. He said the student workshops include lessons on how to make 3D printers designs, how to laser cut and how to use different tools to connect pieces of machinery.

“When undergraduates or when anybody is doing research and engineering, you are, in most cases, you’re building stuff,” Goldberg said. “And so, one aspect of your skill was to give students the hands-on design and fabrication skills they need in order to be successful in a research lab.”

Anastasia Rynearson, an assistant professor at Campbell University, is leading the URSkilled mentorship workshops for faculty and graduate students who assist undergraduates with research. She said her workshops consist of teaching mentors best practices like continually checking up on students and adjusting leadership styles for students who learn differently than others. She said she and her colleagues at Campbell University are working to compile these best practices into a guidebook to give to the other participating universities.

“Everybody’s an important piece of this puzzle,” Rynearson said. “And we’re trying to make sure that we are working with everybody to provide the best possible support to create good undergraduate research experiences in the future.”

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