PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Cynthia M. Frantz

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Cynthia Frantz is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Oberlin College.

What is your vision of a robust research-rich learning environment?

A research-rich learning environment requires the participation of students, faculty, and administrators. It begins with the students. To foster excitement about research, our students must see the value of scientific approaches to the world, and feel empowered to use these approaches. A handful of students enter college with these qualities already in place. Most, however, do not. Thus the learning environment must cultivate these qualities right from the beginning. Our introductory level courses must not only teach students the tools of trade, but also encourage them to take these tools back into their own lives, to answer questions that are meaningful to them. Upper-level courses that expect students to generate their own questions, and reflect on how those questions could be answered scientifically, continue to hammer home the message that scientific approaches to the world are powerful.

In addition to experiencing the power of scientific method, students also need to experience the power of their own minds. STEM fields intimidate many, particularly females and minorities. Yet the future of STEM fields depends upon engaging these students. This is perhaps the biggest barrier to creating a research-rich learning environment: Students cannot fully embrace the research process if they believe they cannot do it. Our approach to pedagogy needs to acknowledge the fear with which many students approach our subject matter, address the fear explicitly, and give students tools with which to overcome it. This is not spoon-feeding. Quite the opposite: Students must feel that they did the learning in order to feel empowered. Instead, we need to ensure that required “fundamentals” courses are taught by people who want to teach them, and who aspire to a high level of pedagogy.

In addition to the role faculty play in nurturing student researchers in the classroom, they must also nurture them in the lab room. A truly research-rich environment does not employ students merely as cheap labor working on mindless tasks; rather, students are involved actively as apprentices, even collaborators and initiators, in all phases of the research process. This poses yet another barrier: students who are empowered to pursue their own questions have the potential to pull faculty members away from their research programs. This is particularly a problem for non-tenured faculty, who are expected to establish a research record in a relatively short period of time. This tension can be a healthy one, if structures are in place to ensure that both groups of people get their needs met. Research assistant positions can introduce students to the research process while furthering the faculty member’s interests, and honors projects can allow students to work independently.

Finally, administrators facilitate the development of a research-rich environment behind the scenes. In part, they do this by providing needed resources, such as course release for mentoring activities, or funds for student research projects. More importantly, however, they can contribute by valuing the outcomes of active undergraduate research. This means valuing papers coauthored with students, rewarding faculty who take students to conferences, and acknowledging— formally in the tenure process— that involving undergraduates in research often comes at a cost to productivity. This is another difficult hurdle to creating a research-rich environment for undergraduates: time spent with students is not as visible as a publication. Developing systems that make research with students visible and valued is ultimately the crucial piece to ensuring that facultystay committed to the process of creating a research-rich environment for their students.