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March 7, 2014

It’s not just a classroom. It’s immersion.

Undergraduate research is becoming a cornerstone of a BSU education for a growing number of students. Working with faculty mentors, some young researchers, for example, are studying how nerve cells grow, why memorials are significant, or how social interactions can guide careers.

This kind of research is growing around the country, and at BSU, more than 1,000 students receive or benefit from grants to further their studies and take on topics in a hands-on way, says Dr. Jenny Shanahan, BSU’s director of Undergraduate Research. With that many students, by extension, there is a need for more faculty members who can mentor or suggest projects that tie into coursework.

And the first-year faculty members at BSU are getting into the act. Of the more than 100 faculty members who are serving as mentors — at least 25% of the faculty — seven are first-year professors.

Dr. Shanahan calls that number encouraging, as more students and faculty take advantage of about $430,000 in grants offered through the school. Most are administered through the Adrian Tinsley Program, named after its creator, the school’s former president. The grants come in various forms: summer grants, semester grants, embedded course grants or conference travel grants.

The trend in the past century and even in just the past 15 years, she says, has been to involve more undergraduates in research. More participation equals more success, higher GPAs, higher retention of students and more graduates who are ready to succeed after college.

“It’s one of the highest-impact practices that college students can engage in,” she said. “The growth has been tremendous.” Semester grants, one of the funds available through BSU, have tripled since Dr. Shanahan started at the university four years ago, she said.

And first-year faculty members see that enthusiasm in the students and they want to be a part of it.

Dr. Kenneth Adams, assistant professor of biological sciences, knew when he started at BSU that he would become a mentor. He had participated in a program at Boston University for three years before coming to campus.

“I love research,” he said. “I love working with students.”

Dr. Adams has four students studying the techniques for growing cells. He explains that the program helps students apply what they have learned in the classroom, experience how rewarding — and frustrating — actual research can be, but ultimately learn “how to do science.”

For Dr. Lisa Litterio, BSU's programs are an opportunity for students to get out of the classroom and explore research in new ways. As a first-year professor of Rhetoric and Communication, she teaches courses in public writing.

She is mentoring two students who already have begun preliminary research. One is studying the portrayal of body weight in films; the other is offering insight into the significance of holocaust and other memorials.

Dr. Litterio says she got involved as a mentor because it meshes with her teaching style, which she describes as “very much invested in experiential learning.”

Her undergrad research student joined her in a visit to the New England Holocaust Memorial in Faneuil Hall as a way of “thinking beyond the walls of the classroom.” She says as mentor she serves as a guide and questions her students “about what they care about, what they are passionate about, what interests them.”

Dr. Colby King, first-year assistant professor of sociology, has been putting research into practice to help immerse his students in understanding “sociological imagination.” He teaches a class on how social interactions can further one’s job and career path – a pet project made possible through the undergrad research program.

“When we talk about the sociological imagination it can sound theoretical to students, and I wanted to do something that demonstrated a real world application of some of these ideas,” said Dr. King. “I thought what better place to do it than in a class about work and opportunities.”

Dr. King is mentoring 15 sophomores who, in the footsteps of famous actor/historian Studs Terkel, are conducting oral histories of people in the fields in which they see themselves working after graduation. After they complete their work, which he describes as a “job-shadowing experience,” they will report on it.

“They are going to be using these concepts and these ideas from sociology to come to a more well-rounded understanding of what their opportunities will be and how to make the best use of the skills that they have acquired while in college.” (Steve Ide, University News)