PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Wendy A. Bohrson
F21 Class of 2005 Statement
How can local, regional and national collaborations, formal and informal enhance and ensure the productivity and quality of faculty leaders in STEM fields?
I believe one of the critical problems that university science educators currently face is interacting with a student population that has a profound lack of understanding of the process of science. Commonly, students enter college having experienced science as a collection of “facts” punctuated by statement s that appear to be final conclusions about the natural world. Students (as well as other groups of the U.S. population) perceive that the study of science is static and that there is little left to discover. One of the challenges that the science professor faces is to (re)introduce students to the process of doing science and actively engage them in and excite them about the nature of discovery. Abundant research and my own experiences suggest that one of the most effective ways of addressing these challenges is to engage students in research.
An integral part of the mission of Central Washington University (CWU) is to provide a range of research experiences for undergraduates. This is achieved through integrating research projects into classes as well as providing opportunities for students to engage in independent, faculty-mentored research projects. About ten years ago, the University established the Office of Undergraduate Research, partly as a consequence of faculty involvement in PKAL workshops. This office provides a small amount of funding for student research projects and travel to professional meetings. The Office also organizes the annual University-wide Symposium on Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression (SOURCE). At SOURCE, in a professional setting, students present the results of the independent research.
During the last ten years, the environment for undergraduate research at CWU has blossomed. The overarching goal of the program in undergraduate research is to develop in our students the excitement and skills that will allow them to pursue life-long learning, regardless of their final professional choices. The more immediate and academic goals of involving students in research include improving their problem-solving skills, providing them with opportunities to develop close professional relationships with faculty, enhancing their communication skills, and in some cases, requiring them to develop strategies for working in groups. The challenges that research students accept lead to richer academic experiences characterized by superior understanding of the material and a fundamental understanding of the nature of discovery.
My undergraduate research program in Geological Sciences centers on questions about how volcanoes work. The projects my students and I collaboratively design take advantage of recently developed analytical laboratories that were funded through grants from the Murdock Charitable Trust and the National Science Foundation, in addition to a microscope laboratory that was funded by CWU. The specific structure of my program also takes advantage of the strong MS program the department has. My undergraduate and MS students often work on complementary projects that utilize the same research tools. The interactions that the undergraduate and graduate students have with one another and with me establishes a strong and supportive learning community that leads to a positive (and I believe realistic) image of how scientific research is done. My undergraduates are required to present at the annual Symposium, and many of them present their results at professional meetings as well.
Despite the very positive environment for undergraduate research at CWU, there are still challenges ahead. In the context of the PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century program, my vision of an exemplary program of science education includes a CWU College of The Sciences programs that provides the structure, resources and recognition for a vigorous program of mentored undergraduate research at all levels. This program would take advantage of the wide range of state-of-the-art technology that we have on campus and would also effectively support interdisciplinary programs. COTS faculty enjoy support of the administration for undergraduate research, but the culture in individual departments varies. Credit for the time required to mentor students, recognition for the purposes of tenure and promotion, and the inherent value of the process of research are different among different departments. In my opinion, achieving full integration of undergraduate research into the culture at CWU will require attention to practical matters, such as how we can continue to offer the breadth of classes we do (i.e., maintain reasonable teaching loads in the face of the current economic climate) while also recognizing the importance (and labor-intensive nature) of faculty-mentored research. Recognition for promotion and tenure is also a practical hurdle; different views in different departments make it difficult, at times, for faculty to place undergraduate research as a priority. In addition to the more “administrative” issues, I also think that there is an opportunity to inform and educate faculty about the benefits of faculty-mentored research, both to themselves and their students, and the varied strategies faculty can employ for integrating research experiences into curricula.
My interest in being involved in the PKAL programs stems from my desire to interact with faculty and administrators from other universities who share the same passion for undergraduate research. I am very interested in engaging in discussions that will help me understand the steps faculty and administrators have taken to enhance the environment for undergraduate research. The experience I can offer is 3.5 years as Director of the CWU Office of Undergraduate Research, one year as interim Director of University Research, and I am currently the Principle Investigator for a Science Talent Expansion Program (STEP), an NSF-funded initiative across the physical and natural sciences and mathematics to increase the number of students who graduate in these fields. My role as PI for the CWU program involves coordination of [approximately] 15 faculty across three programs (high school summer science camp, freshman science seminar series, and sophomore research experience) that include research opportunities for high school students, and first and second year college students. I also have established my own program of undergraduate research. The interactions I have with my students and the sense of accomplishment they achieve doing research are some of the most enjoyable parts of my job. I would like to continue to build and improve this program, and this PKAL appointment would allow me to continue to learn about advancement in integration of undergraduate research into college curricula. My goals for CWU and the College of The Sciences include working with other faculty and administrators to overcome some of the hurdles we experience in fully integrating undergraduate research into curricula, and also taking an active role in disseminating information to faculty about the advantages of and strategies for involving students in research.