The university's renewed emphasis on offering undergraduate students more research opportunities was highlighted Feb. 22 at the annual Faculty Retreat on Teaching and Learning at the Illini Union. The event was organized by the Center for Teaching Excellence and co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost and Online and Continuing Education.
"It's a very exciting time for undergraduate education - there is a tremendous amount of opportunity and research universities already have a huge advantage," Allison Snow, a professor in Ohio State University's department of evolution, ecology and organismal biology, said prior to the meeting.
Snow is the founding director of the OSU Undergraduate Research Office and was the retreat's keynote speaker.
"There's a surge of interest nationwide and universities have been putting more resources into undergraduate programs, research opportunities and services on campus," she said. "It gives students another reason to come to your university and it enhances the overall educational experience. It's not something a student can get online."
Among the growing resources on the U. of I. campus is the new Office of Undergraduate Research, started this year under the direction of Paul Diehl, a political science professor.
Diehl told retreat participants that his office, while new, is working to stimulate the growth of undergraduate research opportunities across campus.
Part of the challenge, he said, is defining exactly what research is and how the concept can be applied across varied curriculums.
"It means very different things and it varies by discipline," he said.
While research traditionally is defined as a student who contributes original intellectual or creative content to a specific discipline, Diehl said that definition may turn out to be too broad for the purposes of offering general undergraduate research opportunities more widely.
He said a more holistic and broadly applicable definition would include "research that is new to the student, not the discipline."
Diehl's office is surveying 125 campus units to determine the kinds of research opportunities already being offered to undergraduates. He said he hopes his office can serve as a conduit for units seeking their own ways to expand research opportunities.
"There are a lot of units who are doing a lot for undergraduates," he said. "There is room for optimism, but lots of room for improvement."
He said student interest in conducting research is high, as evidenced by the more than 300 presentations given at last year's undergraduate research symposium on the Urbana campus.
Snow said during her presentation that having a central office is important in promoting programs such as the symposium, which attracted more than 700 students at OSU last year, and in developing broader campus strategies, expanding research opportunities and improving the overall undergraduate experience.
"(Research opportunities are) not something that can be offered to every undergraduate because we have a limited amount of faculty," she said. "But many times, students don't even know the opportunity exists. There's a perception that the undergraduates are not getting enough attention. The needs and ambitions of our students compel us to be creative in meeting these challenges."
She said research could be defined as simply "inquiry-based learning" that is conducted outside normal class work and directed toward solving a practical problem. The research component can even utilize motivated volunteers.
"There are different comfort levels for students, but sometimes just being in the culture of research is going to help them learn," Snow said.
Snow said post-participation surveys at OSU had shown that students involved in research, even at the most local of levels, picked up critical thinking and presentation skills as well as confidence. Further, access to classroom-based research helps to better clarify student career paths, and has led to better retention of underrepresented students and a greater interest among all students to pursue science and technology careers.
Ilesanmi Adesida, the U. of I. provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the Urbana campus's new undergraduate research office is part of the "re-imagining" of the undergraduate experience at Illinois.
"Increased coordination will only lead to more activity across campus," he said. "Research takes so many forms (here) and all students should have the opportunity to participate. I encourage you all to use the many resources on this campus. We must produce great and grateful alumni."
Participants at the retreat spent half their day in nine breakout sessions discussing ways to foster undergraduate research. The sessions included presentations from the leaders of campus research-support programs.
A poster session with a dozen entries provided more specific examples of undergraduate research in the classroom and strategies for developing localized mentoring processes.
Marne Helgesen, the interim director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, said she was encouraged by the energy she saw among participants at the retreat in wanting to offer undergraduates more opportunities to work outside of the textbook. The event attracted nearly 150 faculty members.
"It was exciting to learn some of the things faculty members were thinking and the possible changes they might implement to enhance undergraduate research in their courses and curriculum," she said.
She said some of the new ideas she heard in discussions included providing a summer colloquia for incoming undergraduates on conducting research, developing informal research offerings as a way to monitor and fine-tune the new approaches, and building undergraduate research opportunities into grant proposals.
"Our biggest challenge would be assessment," Helgesen said.