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Undergraduate Research: A Core Element of Texas Tech's Movement to Tier One

Spring 2011

"The collaborative research of students and faculty 'anchored in the process of discovery' challenges the convenient categories of teaching versus research and learning versus doing. Taken as a strategy for programmatic reform, undergraduate research may offer a solution to the challenges of producing the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and the science-literate society that our leaders claim is essential for the future of our nation."

—David Lopatto (1958- )
Professor of Psychology and Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Professor of Natural Science and Mathematics, Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa

Students present research in Montana.

Texas Tech undergraduate student researchers attend the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Montana in April 2010, where they presented their research projects. (Photo provided by TTU Center for Undergraduate Research)

 

Guy Bailey
President

Bob Smith
Provost

 

Developing research expertise will become increasingly critical to twenty-first century professionals. For members of earlier generations, research was not a part of undergraduate curricula. This is not the case today at many top-tier research universities as well as smaller institutions that have developed a variety of undergraduate research structures as part of an overall recruitment, retention, and graduation strategy.

Although compiled in the late 1990s, the Boyer Commission Report issued by Stony Brook University with funding from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Boyer Commission, 1998) remains a seminal compilation of issues that frame the need for fully integrating undergraduate research at the heart of a research university. Indeed, as stated in the report:

Research universities must be willing to approach the issue of undergraduate education free from the blinders of past practice, to ask basic questions and be prepared for answers that require radical reformation of methods of operation. Given the scale of the institutions and the multitude of interests touched, change will be anything but easy. The commitment to dramatic change, not half measures, must be made now, and action must respond to the urgency of the issue.

During the past two decades, many if not all US research universities have developed infrastructure and other resources to enhance undergraduate research opportunities (UROs) across disciplines. Among the student benefits of these commitments are: (1) increased awareness, confidence, and understanding; (2) persistence and retention toward graduation; (3) enhanced educational experiences; (4) enlarged expectations of earning advanced degrees (especially PhDs), particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and social and economic sciences fields; (5) the development of general academic skills that are transferable across content areas; and (6) evidence that equivalent benefits exist across different genders and ethnic backgrounds (Russell, Hancock, and McCollough, 2007; Lopatto, 2009).

Undergraduate research at Texas Tech University (TTU) has provided a dynamic environment for student researchers to engage with faculty mentors, peers, and the research community. Our experiences and others (e.g., Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour, 2007; Lopatto, 2009) also confirm benefits to faculty members who mentor undergraduate researchers in terms of teaching effectiveness and satisfaction, and research productivity. There are many accounts of the richness that undergraduate research can bring to pedagogy in the classroom, in experiential learning and in mentoring undergraduates. In fact, undergraduate research can become foundational to the education and discovery continuum. It also is important to note that undergraduate research encompasses all scholarship, not only that tied to the STEM disciplines. Rather, it embraces the continuum of disciplines from performing arts, humanities, social sciences, and the STEM disciplines involved in discovery and rediscovery of knowledge.

Texas Tech has embraced and supported UROs through funding from the TTU Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduate program grants, the National Institutes of Health, and other agencies. In fact, Texas Tech is one of only a few universities nationally that had continuous TTU HHMI grants for more than 15 years. Student support through the Honors College, the Center for Undergraduate Research (formerly funded by a McNair federal TRIO program), and the Clark Scholars Program have broadened the scope and involvement of undergraduates in research at TTU. The Honors College has a wonderful scholarship support system for undergraduates, which includes provisions for a growing and successful undergraduate research program.

Moreover, many departments and colleges have well-established undergraduate research programs and activities. Despite these developments and successes, we believe that TTU has not integrated its undergraduate research resources and services as effectively as it might to take full advantage of opportunities and ensure expanded responsiveness as our undergraduate population grows during the current decade. Thus, we have considered a planning effort to address current and emerging needs.

 

This paper offers a blueprint for expanding and enhancing UROs at Texas Tech. But, as described above, we have many of the components already in place for TTU to advance as an exemplar of discovery-based undergraduate research. As we do, we should be able to differentiate ourselves from our peers in Texas and beyond in important ways. Thus, the blueprint we seek must be in sync with the nationally recognized importance of undergraduate research, a dedication to its further development, empowering a team effort across the academic and research divisions of the institution, and a commitment to benefit from best practices observed among our research university peers.

Student presenting a research poster Students presenting a research poster Student presenting a research poster
Students who participate in undergraduate research take part in numerous activities sponsored by the Texas Tech Center for Undergraduate Research, including presenting posters at the annual TTU Undergraduate Research Conference. (Photos provided by TTU Center for Undergraduate Research)

Building on the Past

In Texas Tech's 2010 Strategic Plan for Research, the legacy of premier undergraduate education and our commitment to undergraduate research is stated as follows:

One outcome of our strategic plan will be the strengthening of our undergraduate research programs and profiles. . . . Our focus on undergraduate research spans the spectrum of scholarship at Texas Tech—from the performing arts, humanities, and social sciences to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Thus, compatibility is affirmed between the university's ambition to be a Tier One research university and ensure excellence in undergraduate education—all with an understanding of how critically important undergraduate research is as a component of teaching excellence, a tool for active learning, and a contributor to students' preparation for a competitive and innovative workforce.

Affirming the Power of Undergraduate Research

TTU baccalaureate graduates during the 2010-2020 decade will face a world with stunning new realities:

All of the above points suggest a goal for the university to maximize opportunities for faculty-directed undergraduate research, independent scholarship, and creative efforts. Meeting this goal will be augmented by opportunities for engaged research with communities, service learning and internships, and cooperative ventures. Collectively, the experiences should offer unparalleled empowerment for students to function effectively in the twenty-first century world of work. Indeed, undergraduate research experiences will continue to benefit students across disciplines and enable student success. And, through their participation in research at a university, students will be ensured "benefit by career clarification, improvement of technical and research skills, and experience with the research community." Individual benefits will also include "greater independence of work and thought, tolerance for obstacles, and growing self-confidence" (Lopatto, 2010). Moreover, the goal of learning through research, service, and hands-on experiences will enhance our efforts at recruiting and retaining the very best students well into the decades to come.

The opportunities for faculty members to engage students—particularly as researchers and productive scholars—will also bode well for the attraction of outstanding future faculty. Thus, the combined goals cry out for a plan that taps the creativity of our faculty and senior staff.

Going Forward

To help propel Texas Tech to the forefront of undergraduate research and decision-based learning, a task force has been commissioned and is led by Texas Tech's Vice President for Research Taylor Eighmy.

The task force includes faculty from all ranks and a range of disciplines, but it engages faculty members who are already involved significantly in undergraduate research. Furthermore, the task force includes senior staff members from the Offices of the Provost and Vice President for Research, along with faculty members who hold Paul Whitfield Horn Professorships and key staff members who have contributed to the development of undergraduate education for many years.

Finally, we will ask two Honors College students and a graduate student to participate. Thus, a number of our very best faculty members, scholars, and students will help us direct a critical effort.

The Appendix contains a roster for the undergraduate research task force, which has been charged as follows:

With a plan in place, we anticipate a TTU community better poised to serve our undergraduates and the needs they will have to function most effectively in the professional world of the twenty-first century. As you consider this proposal and have ideas to contribute that might assist Vice President Eighmy and the undergraduate research task force members, please feel welcome to contact Dr. Eighmy. Thank you for sharing your interest in this important topic.

Video Profiles

Provost Bob Smith visits with Micah Green, an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, about undergraduate research at Texas Tech and the undergraduate research task force.

Click here to view larger video.

 

Undergraduate researchers at Texas Tech share their experiences and current research projects. Featured undergraduates include Leslie Abraham, College of Arts and Sciences; Andrew Nelson, College of Architecture; Heather Darnell, College of Visual and Performing Arts and College of Arts and Sciences; Emily Collins, College of Arts and Sciences.

Click here to view larger video.

Bibliography

Boyer Commission on Education Undergraduates in the Research University. 1998. Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, report archives at Stony Brook University, New York; http://naples.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/673918d46fbf653e852565ec0056ff3e/d955b61ffddd590a852565ec005717ae/$FILE/boyer.pdf

Hunter, Anne-Barrie, Sandra L. Laursen, and Elaine Seymour. 2007. "Becoming a Scientist: The Role of Undergraduate Research in Students' Cognitive, Personal and Professional Development." Science Education 91: 36-74; http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.v91:1/issuetoc

Lopatto, David. 2009. Science in Solution: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning. Tucsan, AZ: Research Corporation for Science Advancement; http://www.rescorp.org/gdresources/downloads/Science_in_Solution_Lopatto.pdf

Russell, Susan H., Mary P. Hancock, and James McCollough. 2007. "Benefits of undergraduate Research Experiences." Science 316: 548-549; http://fhs.mcmaster.ca/pediatrics_research/documents/benefitsofundegraduateresearchexperiencesScienceMay2007.pdf

Texas Tech University. 2010 Strategic Plan for Research; www.ttu.edu/stratplan/docs/StratPlanResearch0410.pdf

About the Authors

Guy Bailey is president and professor of English at Texas Tech University.

Bob Smith is provost and senior vice president, and professor of chemistry at Texas Tech University.

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