Upgrading college teaching and learning. Research experience enriches undergrads. Educators are tapping the educational potential offered by undergraduate student participation in faculty research.
Lewiston, Maine — BATES COLLEGE senior Bette Smith will have spent nearly two years researching the characters and history of Leo Tolstoy's novel ``War and Peace'' before she graduates. In addition to doing research 10 hours per week while at Bates, she has spent a summer at Harvard's Russian Research Center and several weeks at the Tolstoy Foundation in New York conducting research for the project.
Her findings will provide Bates professor of art Donald Lent with the information he needs to complete a series of etchings and paintings of scenes from the epic novel.
In increasing numbers, educators are tapping the educational potential offered by undergraduate student participation in faculty research. The return, they find, is an educational experience for the student that extends well beyond the classroom.
``Involving students in faculty research helps students to understand that what they are being taught comes from somewhere,'' explains Gillian Cell, dean of arts and sciences at the University of North Carolina. ``It is important to teach students the process by which knowledge is gained.''
The trend goes beyond recommendations made by a recent Carnegie Foundation report that stresses the need for undergraduate educators to shift their focus from research to teaching. Educators are recognizing that an ingredient of successful undergraduate education may be to move students in the direction of faculty libraries.
The Bates Dana Apprenticeship Program is supported by a $200,000 grant from the Dana Foundation and a $400,000 contribution from the college. The money is used to meet the financial needs of apprentices during their last two years at the college, while allowing them to participate in faculty research projects.
The availability of foundation money represents an advantage private liberal arts colleges have over public institutions in creating innovative educational programs.
But, according to Stephen Barkanic, Dana Foundation Program officer, because the faculty at small liberal arts colleges emphasize teaching over research, students have little opportunity to become involved in faculty research at the undergraduate level.
``Students have no exposure to faculty research at these schools,'' said Mr. Barkanic. ``We have recognized [student/faculty research] as an important part of learning.''
Oberlin College provost Sam Carrier has organized a coalition of the nation's leading liberal arts colleges that has studied the issue of involving students in faculty research. Despite findings of 10- to 20-percent student involvement in science-related research, Dr. Carrier worries about the future.
``As we've looked at the national need for scientists, my sense is that there may be an under-supply of first-rate scientists by the end of the century,'' he said. Carrier sees the establishment of student/faculty research opportunities as part of a mission small liberal arts colleges have a responsibility to carry out.
``... Colleges need to gear up to send students on to graduate schools, and graduate schools to send them out into the work force. ... We will need people with a broad range of analytic skills to approach complex interdisciplinary problems,'' he says.
Student/faculty research programs at large research institutions face different problems from those at small liberal arts colleges. But educators from these large universities generally point to the large supply and variety of faculty research projects as their greatest advantage.
This potential is one of the founding blocks of the Alliance for Undergraduate Education. The 12-school coalition has aimed at defining the special educational opportunities that the large research universities could present to students.
``A continually stated concern is that faculty are becoming more and more involved in their research to the exclusion of students,'' said Carol Cartwright, vice-provost at Penn State, also an alliance member. ``Faculty involvement in campus life is really lacking.''
Educators at these universities are increasingly viewing student/faculty research projects as a way to bridge that gap. ``If we can get students and faculty members working togther in this way, I think we will have reaped another benefit as well,'' said Dr. Cell.
The recent Carnegie Foundation report stated that 42 percent of the faculty at four-year colleges do less than five hours of research per week. About 17 percent do none at all.
``The program forces me to do my research,'' said Jean Potuchek, assistant professor of sociology at Bates and a faculty sponsor, ``The apprentice provides me with the incentive [to do research].... I feel a responsibility to help the student to learn through my research.''
The trend in student/faculty research suggests a desire by educators to seek a richer learning experience for undergraduates than traditional classroom learning has been able to provide. In increasing numbers, educators are moving toward reviving the one-on-one educational experience.
``I find it really exciting to be a mentor,'' says Dr. Potuchek. ``The term `apprentice' suggests passing on a craft. ... There is no doubt that it benefits both students and faculty.''