Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

The Research-rich Undergraduate Community

September 9, 2005

Building and sustaining a research-rich learning environment of distinction calls for a supportive institutional culture. In this culture, faculty are equally passionate about undergraduate learning and their own intellectual vitality. By the same token, this culture also recognizes and rewards faculty for their work. This conviction as been at the center of PKAL’s efforts from the beginning.

From the proceedings of a 2003 Summit on Undergraduate Research at Bates College, organized by Bates chemist Tom Wenzel, we learn of five ways that institutions should support research-active faculty who work with student as collaborators. How research benefits teaching was a keynote address, And gladly would he lerne and gladly teach..., at the 1991 PKAL 1st National Colloquium in his address, James Powell (then President of Reed College) outlined ten recommendations for achieving the appropriate balance between teaching and research in the lives of faculty leaders.

Moving from Chaucer to the 21st century, reflections of recipients of NSF’s Distinguished Teaching Scholar award illustrate the multiple benefits– to students, to faculty, and to science– of making “learning by doing” a hallmark of the robust undergraduate STEM environment. In the words of 2005 awardee Paul Bierman, “If anything, discovering a new research passion (how people learn) has increased my overall energy even as the hours left for sleep seem fewer.” Paul, a member of the PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century, is a professor of geology at the University of Vermont. Several other DTS recipients also reflected on the impact of their institutional culture on their work.

The 2003 series of PKAL seminars resulted in a set of statements about what work in undergraduate STEM education. What works– in serving majors emerged as a check list about what needs to be in place if students are to be motivated to pursue graduate school and/or careers in scientific and technological fields. The value of connecting to industrial partners, highlighted in that check list, is emphasized by corporate speakers at other PKAL events. As evidenced from the presentation by William Pulleyblank of IBM, the personal characteristics and skills that contribute to success in the workplace parallel goals set for student learning within a research-rich learning environment.

Some nuts and bolts of building a research-rich learning environment come from lessons learned from Keck/PKAL consultancies, including one that recommended creating an office of sponsored programs and another outlining how to target institutional resources more directly. An earlier PKAL Volume IV essay by Peter Facione, Provost at Loyola University (IL) provides further insights on securing funding to support the role of the faculty scholar.

PKAL’s planning process for institutional transformation starts with the shaping of a driving vision that undergirds the work of developing goals and strategies, and identifying the appropriate actions through which the goals and vision can be reached. As an example of defining a vision, a joint statement on undergraduate research has been drafted under the leadership of the National Council on Undergraduate Research, in conjunction with many major professional societies, coordinated by Ronald Dotterer, of Salisbury State, former NCUR president. This statement can serve as a catalyst as other leaders shape their vision of a research-rich learning environment.

What works and what lasts occurs when institutions take care to determine if, how and what students are learning as the environment becomes research-rich, is organized to give students the motivation and confidence to succeed as part of the community of science. Assessment is critical. Many colleges and universities are diligently monitoring and measuring learning, against the general and specific goals set for their students and are further sharing the results with internal constituents and external stakeholders. Among the several informative essays included in the CUR publication describing projects supported by NSF institutional grants (RARE/AIRE) is the description from Oberlin College of their in Priming the Pumps: Developing and assessing research-like experiences in courses. Janice Thornton, a member of the Oberlin team, is a PKAL Faculty for the 21st century. In many ways, research on learning and our understanding of the role of undergraduate research are both in a formative stage. David Lopatto, Professor of Psychology at Grinnell College presented an earlier essay in PKAL Volume IV, what undergraduate research can tell us about research on learning. His work has also been instrumental in understanding the perceptions of students and faculty on the undergraduate research experience and its benefits.

These materials represent only a fraction of the reports, analyses and personal stories that are beginning to chronicle and document the work of leaders shaping a research-rich undergraduate learning environment. PKAL will continue to spotlight the work of these leaders in seminars. The PKAL “Research-rich” Seminar at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (October 7 - 9, 2–5).

Further information can also be found through Volume IV postings on the PKAL Web site.