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New Approaches

Changes in undergraduate research program increase diversity and equity
Story Series
Action: Racial Justice and Equity

Research is often about asking tough questions, big questions. 

When Dr. Jenny Shanahan and her colleagues in the Office of Undergraduate Research began asking tough questions of their program, they found work was needed to be done. This was especially true in light of the pandemic and the many changes it wrought, as well as the reckoning, nationally and locally, over racial injustice, including the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Most experts agree that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students and faculty were disproportionately impacted by these events.

“We felt our students and many of our faculty mentors were dealing with the intersection of these crises, and if we were going to help them heal, rebuild and achieve what they aim to do, we needed to do things differently in every part of our work,” said Dr. Shanahan, who is assistant provost and head of BSU’s Center for Transformative Learning.

She, along with BSU professors Dr. Jeanne Carey Ingle, Dr. Jing Tan, Dr. Thayaparan Paramanathan and Dr. Kenneth W. Adams, developed a multi-pronged approach to making necessary changes to the university’s undergraduate research program. Ultimately, they came up with a number of principles to guide and drive these changes. The article they wrote about the process was recently named 2022’s best paper by Scholarship and Practice of Undergraduate Research (SPUR). The article, “Seven Principles for Reimagining Undergraduate Research in the ‘Next Normal,’” was first published in the journal’s winter 2022 issue and reissued in winter 2023.

The SPUR judges saw real value in the work, which included surveys of student researchers and faculty mentors, research into how higher education is changing and a literature review. Those participating were asked to review the undergraduate research application and instructions, the department’s website, the content of some of its workshops and more.

The findings were “humbling,” Dr. Shanahan said.

The willingness to confront these issues was a big reason the paper was selected as tops in the United States by the SPUR judges. They also praised “the timeliness and timelessness of its aspirational message and the values which we aspire to as a community, as well as (the) paper’s down-to-earth, practical insights into how to make the needed changes in undergraduate research to achieve equity.”  

The seven principles are really calls to action:

  1. Overhaul undergraduate research recruitment, selection and support for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students.  
  2. Support faculty and students shifting their research focus to topics of renewed urgency (e.g., effects of the pandemic, racial injustice) and seeking to decolonize their research.  
  3. Create customized support for undergraduate research in different disciplines and on different kinds of projects, as students and faculty face disproportional challenges.  
  4. Capitalize on the unexpected benefits of remote research and mentoring.  
  5. Respond to the lack of assuredness with technology and lack of access to reliable connectivity experienced by faculty and students.  
  6. Accommodate the work schedules of students.  
  7. Offer flexibility and trust.  

The goal was to rethink just about every aspect of undergraduate research, Dr. Shanahan said, ensuring it aligned with the findings of the Special Presidential Task Force on Racial Justice.

“If there’s one thing the presidential task force showed is that so much of what we do in higher education is founded in white supremacy,” she said. “It’s not intended, but it’s a legacy we have to contend with.

“We need to examine these things and uproot them.”

There are many examples of the changes the Office of Undergraduate Research has made or is making. Dr. Shanahan highlighted two. An expectation of a fixed, 10-week, 40-hours-per-week commitment for students participating in the summer Adrian Tinsley Program (ATP) constituted an insurmountable barrier for those with long-term jobs from which they couldn’t step away. The new ATP allows students to conduct research for a total of 200 or 400 hours, spread out over 14 weeks on their own schedule, alongside other work and family responsibilities. The second change Dr. Shanahan mentioned is a streamlined application for the ATP grant. With the aim of creating a more equitable opportunity for students, the application will include criteria that value a broader array of strengths they can bring to research, such as engagement in their communities and fluency in more than one language.

The payoff of having made many changes is that today BSU’s undergraduate research program is more diverse. In fact, the cohort of students in the program last summer represented the most racially and ethnically diverse ever. 

“It’s all about the idea of listening to the voices and experiences of our racially minoritized students and colleagues,” she said. “And when they tell us, people in leadership roles, what their experience is, we need to listen, to believe and to respond.”

“If one can be humble enough to take it in and make some changes, it’s not scary; it’s very hopeful,” Dr. Shanahan added.