Kara Loy, co-ordinator of the undergraduate research initiative.
Kara Loy, co-ordinator of the undergraduate research initiative.

Discovering research

Getting junior-year students more involved with research earlier on in their academic career is a challenge the Undergraduate Research Initiative is solving by offering mentorship and meaningful curriculum-based research experiences.

Launched in 2012, the Undergraduate Research Initiative is a partnership between the Office of the Vice-President Research and the Office of the Vice-Provost, Teaching and Learning. Its establishment was a result of the third integrated plan's goal to increase experiential learning opportunities by 20 per cent, explained Kara Loy, co-ordinator of the undergraduate research initiative.

"Things were taking place at the third year with research methodology classes, then in fourth year with capstone classes, honours projects, co-ops, internships," Loy said. "But there wasn't a lot happening in first or second year."

The two offices thought it might be possible to encourage more research in the entry level undergraduates so that by third- or fourth-year, students would be better prepared for the rigours of research.

There are several initiatives underway to do just that, Loy explained, referencing the Undergraduate Summer Research Assistantship (USRA) as one example, in which students get mentored research experience. USRA provides funding for 70 to 90 students from May to September, with matching funding provided through the student's college or unit. "We know there are lots of wonderful benefits when students receive one-to-one mentoring," said Loy, "not to mention a paid research experience."

Another program in place is the First Year Research Experience (FYRE). Offered by faculty teaching first-year courses, FYRE introduces a research experience into entry- level classes in agriculture and bioresources, arts and science, and kinesiology. "They come up with a project and start working on those research skills, right from the beginning," said Loy, adding that students working in groups develop a research question, investigate it and share the results.

Loy said there are lots of research opportunities in many different disciplines, with further variation being added given the students' approach to the research topic. She lists a women and gender studies class as an example. "It's really interdisciplinary," she said, "so people can take a social scientist approach, they can take a more quantitative approach or they can take a humanist approach."

FYRE is designed, explained Loy, to promote a deeper level of learning that favours skills and concepts over full-out discovery—important skills for a young researcher to master. "We're interested in people finding out how the process works, getting an idea of what it means to be a researcher and how they think."

Additionally, the office aims to support related undergraduate research initiatives on campus organized by colleges or student groups, such as the Project Symposium held by the University of Saskatchewan Students' Union.

Aside from skill development that can lead to graduate studies or career leverage, having a successful research experience is the difference between receiving information and really understanding it.

"In traditional lecture- based experience, students would be getting a lot of information, which is accessible to people now, whether they take a university class or not," said Loy. She uses a popular contender, the massive open online class (or MOOC) as an example, asking why anyone would want to pay tuition to attend university instead of just taking MOOCs.

But by having the research know-how, "they have that hands-on experience, so they are able to link that content from the lectures with what they're also able to produce. They come out with skills that are developed and final products, whether it's something published like a poster or an artifact, or the ability to communicate their findings in synthesis of information." This also makes them more valuable to employers as well, she added.

Faculty could stand to benefit, too, from being involved in undergraduate research initiatives. Some of the faculty involved are already publishing and presenting on their work, said Loy, while others try it to diversify their research portfolio. "It also helps with tenure and merit, because it shows that they're trying new things that are having a positive effect."

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