PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
L. Alan Bradshaw
F21 Class of 2005 Statement
Question: How are colleagues in different disciplines coming together to reshape the undergraduate STEM learning experience?
Research as an Integral Component of a Comprehensive Undergraduate Education
Undergraduate STEM majors increasingly face a global environment in which traditional disciplinary lines are blurred or erased. For this reason, didactic university training must adapt to offer a comprehensive experience that satisfies the market-driven demands for workers who not only are well-prepared academically but also are experienced participants on interdisciplinary teams with multiple constituents. Extracurricular research projects represent a critical component of such an experience.
After completing my Ph.D. in Physics at Vanderbilt University in 1995, I continued my doctoral research into the magnetic fields produced by biological electrical activity in the stomach and small bowel. This research is necessarily interdisciplinary, with interest from collaborators in such diverse academic departments as surgery, physics, biomedical engineering and mathematics. More and more, researchers are finding it necessary to cross interdisciplinary lines to address important questions. In our case, the study of the physics of magnetic fields applied to the biological electrical activity of the stomach and small bowel has allowed us to develop a non-invasive instrument capable of diagnosing gastrointestinal disorders. Superconducting QUantum Interference Device (SQUID) magnetometers are able to sense the minute magnetic fields associated with biological electrical activity. Ultimately, this technology will move into the marketplace and encounter even wider interaction from an even more diverse group of constituents.
Undergraduate researchers have been an integral part of this work. Since accepting a faculty position at Lipscomb University in the fall of 1999, I have had the privilege of working with six undergraduates representing five separate academic departments (Physics, Biology, Engineering Mechanics, Computer Engineering, and Computer Science). All have made substantial contributions to the overall research effort, ranging from assistance with experimental apparatus and data collection to the design and construction of instrumentation to the analysis and publication of results. The experiences of these undergraduates have prepared them to pursue graduate education in their respective fields. One student is continuing his work with me, now pursuing a Ph.D. in Physics.
In my experience, it is essential that undergraduate STEM majors enter the academic environment with a vision for their potential within their respective fields. Although the classroom environment provides the student with the academic foundation for a successful career, the opportunity to participate in research can broaden his or her training in practical terms in ways that benefit both student and mentor. However, the typical practice of restricting undergraduate researchers to the “scut work” of data entry and lab resource management must be reexamined. When holistically incorporated into the overall research project, even undergraduates who may have incomplete skill sets can be highly motivated to seek out necessary resources. The undergraduates I have worked with have all needed to learn material far above that required by their respective curricula, but all did so eagerly. It is thus incumbent upon faculty interested in comprehensive undergraduate education to facilitate such research experiences for their interested students.