by Dr. Taylor Eighmy
Undergraduate Research is at the Core of Discovery and Experiential Learning
Texas Tech University provides undergraduates with opportunities to engage with peers, faculty mentors and the research community through various undergraduate research programs, including:
Texas Tech University/Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Center for Undergraduate Research
My experience with undergraduate research at Tufts University back in the late 1970s proved to be quite profound for me. It took me on a wondrous journey to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution as a guest student, to graduate school at the University of New Hampshire, to a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, to an expansive life as a research faculty member involved in many transdisciplinary collaborations, to an early and seemingly continuous career in research center administration, and eventually, to a special place at Texas Tech University as a senior research administrator. I now have the pleasure of learning vicariously through the great scholarship of all of our faculty and the work they conduct with their colleagues, graduate students and increasingly, their undergraduate students.
At Tufts, I was afforded a wonderful opportunity to conduct an undergraduate research project with Dr. Jan Pechenik, a newly hired assistant professor in marine invertebrate zoology in the Department of Biology. During my junior and senior years, he mentored me, guided me, steered me to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and beyond, and patiently watched me emerge from an unfocused student into a passionate, budding scientist who devoured all aspects of the subject. I found my calling, my intense passion for learning and discovery, and my eternal appreciation for the experience of mentoring undergraduate experiential learning through the opportunity that Dr. Pechenik afforded me. I remain very grateful to this day for that opportunity, and I thank him for that gift.
I know there are many faculty at Texas Tech who have the same commitment to mentoring, discovery and experiential learning that allow today’s undergraduates to have an equivalent experience tied to discovery and real learning. They span virtually all disciplines and produce the same responses in young students as my own, more than 30 years ago. The critical question is . . . What might we do with all of this profound opportunity here at Texas Tech?
What is Experiential Learning?
The concept of “active” or “experiential” learning is an important one as Texas Tech looks to the future. The concepts include these definitions:
Active learning is a mode of instruction that puts the responsibility of learning on the learner, according to Charles Bonwell and James Eison in their report “Active learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom.” Their work is one of the most definitive and highly cited overviews on the subject, and describes active learning as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.” As the concept has evolved, the notion does include early mentoring and then actual hands-on practice of the learned concept. It is frequently conducted in learning cohorts.
Experiential learning is simply the process of learning by direct experience. It evolved out of the synthesis of concepts by David Kolb, based on the earlier work of psychologists Dr. John Dewey from the University of Chicago, Dr. Kurt Lewin from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Jean Piaget from the University of Geneva. Kolb’s seminal and highly cited work describes experiential learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” In today’s higher education construct, experiential learning can include, but is not limited to, study abroad, service learning, internships, volunteerism and especially undergraduate research.
In some instances, the two models can blend under the general notion of experiential learning. For the purposes of this discussion, I will refer to this form of pedagogy as experiential learning.
Undergraduate researcher Wail Amor was one of dozens of students who presented posters at the 2012 Undergraduate Research Conference at Texas Tech.
What is the Role of Undergraduate Research at a Great Research University?
In 1995, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching issued a very important work on “Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities.” Dr. Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation and former chancellor of the State University of New York and U.S. commissioner of education, convened a distinguished group of academicians to examine the reinvigoration of undergraduate education at America’s great private and public research universities. I have found that the concept of undergraduate research within the experiential learning construct is best framed by this report, commonly referred to as the Boyer Commission report.
The report describes the research university as an interesting ecosystem binding together inquiry, investigation and discovery. It offers an academic bill of rights, the principal tenet being “opportunities to learn through inquiry rather than simple transmission of knowledge.” Ten ways to change undergraduate education are offered, and the first involves making research-based learning the standard for undergraduates. The report makes a strong and convincing argument for undergraduate research as a foundation for experiential learning:
“What is needed now is a new model of undergraduate education at research universities that makes the baccalaureate experience an inseparable part of an integrated whole. Universities need to take advantage of the immense resources of their graduate and research programs to strengthen the quality of undergraduate education, rather than striving to replicate the special environment of the liberal arts colleges. There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between all the participants in university learning that will provide a new kind of undergraduate experience available only at research institutions. Moreover, productive research faculties might find new stimulation and new creativity in contact with bright, imaginative and eager baccalaureate students, and graduate students would benefit from integrating their research and teaching experiences. Research universities are distinctly different from small colleges, and they need to offer an experience that is a clear alternative to the college experience.”
A follow-up 2001 survey by Boyer Commission members about the impact and effects of the report has proved quite interesting. The survey contacted 123 major U.S. research universities, with 91 responding. Regarding undergraduate research, the survey revealed that:
- 16% of the respondents reported that all or most of the undergraduates participated in undergraduate research experiences
- 26% responded that about half of the undergraduates participated in undergraduate experiences
- 48% responded that their institutions had less extensive programs
- 21% of the respondents reported that the development of undergraduate research experience was a “new advancement” for their institution and one of the most important actions they had taken to improve undergraduate education
Importantly, the follow-up report emphasizes the need to expand undergraduate research beyond the traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines into the social sciences and humanities.
What Does Undergraduate Research Mean to Texas Tech?
Texas Tech undergraduate researchers span from STEM disciplines to the creative arts and humanities. Read some of our undergraduate research profiles from Texas Tech Discoveries.
Unlocking the Lullaby: Heather Darnell explores the world of undergraduate research at Texas Tech through music of the Mediterranean.
Making a Difference in Research: Lesley Abraham can be found most days in Brandt Schneider’s genetics lab at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center where she conducts basic research on the interconnections of cell growth, cell size and aging.
Call of the Wild: Brandon Gross discovers his calling through undergraduate research experiences.
Video produced by Scott Irbeck, Office of the Vice President for Research.
In Texas Tech's “2010 Strategic Plan for Research,” specific attention was directed at the important role of undergraduate research as the institution was articulating its 10-year plan:
“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.”
In the February 2011 issue of “All Things Texas Tech,” TTU President Guy Bailey and Provost Bob Smith articulated the importance of undergraduate research to the institution’s plan to become a great public research university:
“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.”
The TTU Undergraduate Research Task Force Report
In January 2011, President Bailey and Provost Smith commissioned an Undergraduate Research Task Force to:
- Consider national best practices for promoting and supporting undergraduate research, scholarship and independent creative efforts, particularly against the Boyer Commission recommendations.
- Catalog and describe the sometimes disparate units and efforts that drive undergraduate research at Texas Tech.
- Given best practices and our existing areas of strength, provide a blueprint for most effectively improving undergraduate research opportunities and experiences–recognizing the necessary interfaces of centralized versus decentralized units and the important roles that the university’s colleges and departments will play in all future efforts.
- Describe specific targeted efforts that will help us meet the goals articulated in Texas Tech’s “Making it possible… 2010-2020 Strategic Plan” and in TTU’s “2010 Strategic Plan for Research.”
- Recommend methods for maximizing appropriate financial support for the preferred undergraduate research opportunities that are brought forward.
- Suggest ways to engage both faculty members and students in our jointly held goals.
I had the great pleasure to chair the task force. The 32-member group included 20 faculty from 16 departments representing five colleges, six administrators, three students, two staff directly involved with undergraduate research, and a faculty member from TTU’s sister institution the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
After performing an internal assessment and an examination of best practices at other universities, the task force came up with 23 recommendations in five categories. The categories and a summary of recommendations are as follows:
Administrative: Identify the best organizational structure for the coordination of undergraduate research; establish permanent funding to support students and faculty; establish criteria on how mentoring undergraduate researchers and how undergraduate research publications affect tenure and promotion; establish an “R” course number designation for all undergraduate research courses; and establish co-curricular and experiential opportunities to increase cultural undergraduate research opportunities.
Visibility: Establish mechanisms to better inform current and potential students about undergraduate research opportunities; encourage departments to develop multimedia-rich Web pages detailing undergraduate research opportunities; adapt section of IS1100 to emphasize undergraduate research; and highlight undergraduate research at Red Raider Orientation.
Faculty: Develop resources to assist faculty in learning how to become a mentor; find funding to support undergraduate researchers; establish a mentor program pairing faculty interested in participating in undergraduate research with faculty who currently participate; develop official recognition for faculty mentors; place a greater emphasis on undergraduate research at new faculty orientation; and develop a list of undergraduate research publication opportunities and make it available to faculty mentors and students.
Student: Develop resources to help students find undergraduate research opportunities and understand what to expect from a faculty mentor; develop student seminars on research ethics and other topics, such as applying to graduate school; and develop official recognition for student researchers.
Assessment: Identify courses used for undergraduate research activities and establish enrollment trends over the past five to 10 years; establish yearly enrollment growth goals and measure growth in identified undergraduate research courses; and add a section to Digital Measures allowing faculty to report undergraduate research activities.
Dr. Sarah Kulkofsky as an Exemplar
Dr. Sarah Kulkofsky, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Sciences was to have been a member of the Undergraduate Research Task Force, but tragically she passed away on Jan. 13, 2011, before the first meeting of the task force.
I visited with Sarah on a number of occasions when I arrived at Texas Tech, most notably on Nov. 4, 2010 at an open house in her college when the Iva Lea Barton Research Suite was dedicated in the College of Human Sciences. Her assembled research team at the open house involved graduate students and a significant number of undergraduates. In July 2010, she received an R15 NIH academic research enhancement award on “The Effects of Narrative Scaffolding on Low-Income Children’s Suggestibility,” from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Her posters on her early NIH-funded research on childhood memory were populated by many students, both graduate and undergraduate. It was clear her undergraduate students shared her passion for discovery and they were integral to her research team concept. She exemplified the faculty mentor role for undergraduate experiential learning, especially instilling a “thirst for knowledge.” She was the first faculty member I thought of when I was asked to help President Bailey and Provost Smith assemble the task force.
The section below presents some personal aspects to Sarah’s life and her passions for discovery. It describes her initial interest in childhood memory and how that led to her brief but profound life around her own “thirst for knowledge.” She is greatly missed by her parents, Mic and Linda; her siblings, Drew and Meggan; her nieces, Kyleah and Kambrie; her grandmother, Joan; and many aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as her friends, colleagues, and students. Sarah’s collaborations with her colleague Dr. Kazuko Behrens were important; some of their collaborations will hopefully allow her work to be published posthumously. Sarah had begun organizing a symposium on her collaborative work on child attachment behaviors and its effect on mother-child reminiscing during the Society for Research in Child Development biennial meeting in Montreal, Canada, in March 2011. Dr. Behrens continued with the symposium and organized a short memorial at the beginning for colleagues to share memories of Sarah.
The Undergraduate Research Task Force report was dedicated to Sarah. Brittany Luker, a member of the Undergraduate Research Task Force, worked with Dr. Kulkofsky in her research group and represented her on the task force.
The task force report was transmitted to President Bailey and Provost Smith, and President Bailey has asked for the provost to lead the implementation. Provost Smith will be working with Dr. Juan Munoz and I to prioritize and bring forward the recommendations of the task force–all with the clear purpose to tie together discovery and experiential learning so that the notion around “thirst for knowledge” becomes the rallying cry for making undergraduate research foundational to the undergraduate educational experience here at Texas Tech.
Sarah Kulkofsky: A Mentor Remembered
By Kristina Woods Butler
According to Sarah Kulkofsky’s parents, Mic and Linda, the former assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University was always a highly self-motivated individual who never needed much guidance. From the time Sarah was little, her parent’s said she was a perfectionist about many things; and as she matured she excelled at nearly everything she did.
While in high school, Sarah toyed with ideas of a future in law or possibly forensic science. It wasn’t until the infamous McMartin preschool trial, a daycare sexual abuse case in the 1980s, when Sarah found her true calling. Sarah based her senior science fair project on the case, and the topic of children’s memories and whether or not they can be manipulated in child abuse cases.
Although Sarah did not receive a superior rating on the project, she was determined to prove her hypothesis, which eventually led to her life’s work in children’s memories.
After finishing high school, Sarah received a full scholarship to Colgate University, where she graduated magna cum laude with high honors in psychology. She went on to receive her Ph.D. from Cornell University.
“She never passed on an opportunity to be challenged,” said her mother. “She knew that if she really wanted something and worked hard enough, anything was possible.”
Sarah joined the faculty at Texas Tech in 2007 and immediately began involving undergraduates and graduate students in her research. Her colleagues said she was dedicated to her students and the idea of educating undergraduates.
“She was really passionate about helping students, getting them going and educating them to be good researchers,” said Jessecae Marsh, a former colleague of Kulkofsky’s at Texas Tech and currently an assistant professor at Lehigh University. “She was really invested in this idea that students from anywhere or from any background could get excited about psychology-based research, learn how to do it and make it a career.”
Linda believes her daughter’s dedication to her research and her students is due to her kindness, compassion and strong work ethic instilled as a child.
“Sarah did not care where you came from or who you were,” said Linda Kulkofsky. “All that mattered to her was that you wanted to learn and gave it your best shot. I do think that Sarah's humble beginnings were an asset to her; nothing was handed to her. She had to work really hard to get to where she was, and I think it made her a better person.”
Sarah died Jan. 13, 2011, at the age of 30 after a short illness. Although young, she left a legacy and impact on friends, family, students and colleagues.
In 2011, the Undergraduate Research Task Force, charged with enhancing undergraduate research efforts at Texas Tech, dedicated their report to Sarah, who was to have been a member of the group. Sarah also was a large supporter of the Center for Undergraduate Research and undergraduate scholarship at Texas Tech. In 2011, an undergraduate research award was established in her name for students engaged in research projects under the guidance of a faculty mentor.
“I know she loved her work,” said her mother. “She and I would often joke and play the game ‘if we ever won the lottery,’ and she would always say that she would still do what she does because she derives so much pleasure from it. We miss her terribly, but we are always impressed with what she was able to accomplish in her short life. Sarah was always a bright shining star for us, but we had no idea that she lit the path for so many people. It seems that we are still learning from her, even in her death.”
Dr. Taylor Eighmy is Senior Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Feature image by Artie Limmer.