Research challenge

Research amplifies undergraduate experience, now the challenge is expanding those opportunities

When Joseph DeBold, professor of psychology, attends a neuroscience conference this spring, he will be accompanied by several students who will be delivering presentations based on research they have done with him.

That experience, say DeBold and many other faculty members, is an invaluable part of an undergraduate education. "It helps motivate students," said DeBold, chair of the psychology department. "It reminds them of the opportunities out there, and that they can accomplish quite a bit."

Astronomist Robert Willson says because many students cannot afford to work for free between semesters, Tufts needs to find funding sources. © Mark Morelli

With that idea in mind, the university is examining ways to increase the amount of undergraduate student involvement in research. A session at the first School of Arts & Sciences Scholarship Conference, held January 14 on the Medford/Somerville campus, focused on the topic, and a section of the most recent interim report from the Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience also addresses the issue.

"As a liberal arts college embedded within a research university, Tufts is particularly well placed to provide such [research] opportunities, especially when we consider our tradition of being a place where faculty are equally dedicated scholars and teachers," the task force report says.

"Research is important at Tufts, and involving undergraduates in research is also very important," said Robin Kanarek, dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

Most faculty agree on the value of undergraduate research, which can take many forms: working as a research assistant, writing a thesis, taking a research-oriented course or completing a special project or internship. Still, they also acknowledge there are issues that must be confronted if more students are to become involved in research.

Student interest
When most students arrive at Tufts, they say they intend to pursue some type of independent research. For example, 86 percent of the members of the Class of '06 said that there was a "some chance" or "a very good chance" of doing so.

According to the School of Arts & Sciences, approximately 200 undergraduates took part in either special projects, internships, independent study or directed studies/research during the 2000-01 academic year, the latest year for which figures are available. That does not include students involved in special departmental programs or interdisciplinary or Experimental College programs such as Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC).

"Experimental and immersive in method, engaged learning includes an emphasis on research in the widest sense of the word," says the task force report. "In many disciplines, research will involve experimentation, empirical observation, or data collection; in others, it might center on solitary work in the library or the artist's studio."

"Involving students in research is quite different from discipline to discipline," DeBold said during a discussion at the Arts & Sciences scholarship conference in January. During the conference, small groups of faculty members participated in discussions on various topics relating to scholarship.

DeBold said he tries to encourage students to undertake research by talking in his classes about topics that students have researched or about published articles that students have authored or co-authored.

DeBold limits his undergraduate research assistants to students who have either taken a course with him or who have had a class covering the same topic. "I want them to have a little bit of background, to have been taught methodology, to have some idea of the questions to ask," he said. "In addition, I ask the students to tell me what they hope to get out of it."

It's most important, he says, for students to present their research at conferences, either at Tufts or elsewhere. "One is for the motivational factor," he said. "Two, they learn quite a bit more if they prepare for presentations than just from recording data. And, more importantly, they learn what other people are doing.

"Sometimes people don't appreciate how social an enterprise science is," he said.

Need for resources
Yet, there are obstacles that can prevent undergraduates from taking part in research—specifically, lack of resources. While grants often cover expenses, sometimes that's not enough, particularly for faculty who would like to have undergraduate assistants during the summer.

"Undergraduates get the most productive sense of what we do as scientists during the summer," Donna Mumme, assistant professor of psychology, said at the Arts & Sciences conference. "It's when we get most of our research done."

Psychologist Joseph DeBold says research experiences motivate students. © Mark Morelli

Over the summer, it's easier for students to become part of the decision-making process and to become involved in designing a study, Mumme said—something they might not be able to do during the academic year because of class schedules and time constraints.

"We need funds for students to be able to stick around during the summer," agreed Robert Willson, research associate professor of astronomy. Many students cannot afford to work for free between semesters. "How can we deal with that?" Willson asked.

Another challenge is the cost of living in the Medford/Somerville area during the summer, because students are not allowed to live in on-campus housing unless they are enrolled in summer session classes. "Would it be possible for students to live in the dorms if they are working as research assistants?" asked Mumme.

The report from the undergraduate task force addresses both these concerns and makes two recommendations in this area. One is the expansion of the Undergraduate Research Fund, administered through Dean of the Colleges; the other is the creation of a Summer Scholars program.

Another solution is student fund-raising, said Sherman Teichman, director of EPIIC, the Institute for Global Leadership and the Tufts Institute for Leadership and International Perspective (TILIP).

EPIIC students, for example, have been hugely successful at raising money for their independent projects, which have taken them all over the world for the past 18 years. In addition, Teichman said, alumni are an important source of support for EPIIC and could be for other research endeavors as well. "[Former] students are tremendously thankful," he said. "And when they make it, they will give back," he said.

Student-faculty links
Another stumbling point is that sometimes, students aren't aware of the kind of opportunities available to work with faculty.

"A lot of students don't know what we do outside of class," Willson said. "They have no idea about the other part of our job, research."

Likewise, students may have an interest that goes untapped by faculty, Teichman said. "Who knows what our students want to do? We need to make more of a connection, to interact and create integrated lives."

The task force report touches on this area as well and suggests the creation of a Research Clearinghouse that would help match student and faculty interests—not just on the Medford/Somerville campus, but also at the professional schools on the Boston and Grafton campuses.

Task force recommendations
The second interim report from the Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience, released January 21, echoes the concerns expressed at the faculty conference. Citing a desire to amplify and improve the undergraduate experience at Tufts as a priority of his administration, President Lawrence S. Bacow created the task force in fall 2001. Thus far, the task force, chaired by Gilbert Metcalf, professor of economics, has produced two interim reports. A final report, including recommendations, is expected in June.

The January interim report suggests several initiatives that could provide additional opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research. They include:

Augmented Undergraduate Research Fund: At present, the Dean of Colleges has a "modest budget to support undergraduate research." The report recommends expanding this fund to allow faculty to hire more students and "to allow students to engage in more ambitious (and expansive) research activities, whether here or abroad."

Summer Scholars Program: "The need to earn money in the summer is a considerable barrier for many students who might otherwise wish to work in labs, in the field or in the library on faculty or student research." A Summer Scholars Program could provide stipends; students could compete for the resources based on the model of the International Relations Scholars Program.

Research Funding for Students at the Professional Schools: "An augmented research fund could pay for students to serve as research assistants on projects at Tufts' professional schools. This would have the additional benefit of contributing to the knitting together of the various schools within Tufts," which Bacow has cited as a priority.

Research Clearinghouse: "A research clearinghouse overseen by the Dean of the Colleges could facilitate matching faculty with students and overseeing a support structure for student research." This could be particularly effective at placing students in research opportunities at the professional schools.

Undergraduate Research Symposium: The task force proposed expanding the already-existing symposium to include break-out sessions and a community dinner. It also proposed merging the undergraduate and graduate symposia into a joint event and moving the event from a Saturday to a weekday, perhaps canceling classes on that day to raise the profile of the event and encourage participation.

Endowed Fund for Culminating Academic Experiences: This fund would be developed to support senior theses and other culminating academic experiences. Awards would be given to particularly deserving juniors so that students could focus on their senior-year research without financial constraints.