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Examining undergraduate research
When McGill boasts that it is a "research-intensive university" what does that mean for students? What does it mean for teachers? That's a question that the Senate Subcommittee on Teaching and Learning will be looking at over the next few months.
A working group of the Subcommittee will be examining the report of the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. This examination of American research universities suggests that large research universities like McGill need to seriously re-evaluate how they deliver undergraduate education.
"One of the goals in the university is not just to transmit the corpus of knowledge as it exists, but to engage everybody in the process of contributing to new knowledge. That might mean giving undergraduate students a taste of what research means," said dean of students Bruce Shore, a member of the Senate Subcommittee.
The Boyer Report recommends that "research-based learning be the standard" and that students at research universities should have certain "rights." Among them are the expectation of and opportunity for work with talented senior researchers, access to first-class facilities in which to pursue research, many options among fields of study and directions to move within those fields, including areas and choices not found in other kinds of institutions.
Shore cautioned, however, that adopting the Boyer commission -- or any other university's -- model wholesale would probably not work. McGill's academic culture and budget do not allow the same kinds of programs to be instituted here as at MIT.
"You have to be very careful in what you mean by involving undergraduates in research. The simplistic understanding is that it means that undergraduate students will start hanging out in graduate research labs, and that's a physical impossibility --we hardly have enough room for graduate students," he said.
Shore said that McGill might adapt some Boyer recommendations where sensible, but added that several undergraduate research opportunities already exist.
Fred Sagel, SSMU vice-president university affairs, believes part of the problem is that students are often unaware of them. "Opportunities either do exist and they're not publicized enough, or they don't exist," he says.
"I think the ideal situation would be to see more students working with graduate students. I also think more professors should be teaching about their research -- to a certain extent that happens now, but a lot of it is in upper year seminars."
Sagel said that although the working group is a good first start, not enough has been done in the past.
"It's a question of community and a question of academic culture -- you can't have something on this scale coming from a single working group."
In a recent address to the University of Melbourne, Principal Bernard Shapiro noted that how to incorporate undergraduates into a university's research life is a question not just of education, but also of defining the very nature of the institution.
"Research universities are not, after all, research institutes, and if research universities are to have a future -- remembering that their past is no more than 100 years old -- such a future can only arise from a productive realization of both its teaching and its research programs," he said.
Too often at research universities, top faculty try to avoid teaching undergraduates. Also, undergraduate programs are often geared toward creating graduate students, rather than students with a degree that is worthwhile in its own right.
"In such programs undergraduate students become a kind of 'cannon fodder' for the graduate programs, surely a betrayal of the implicit social contract under which universities are both supported and funded," said Shapiro.
Carman Miller, dean of Arts, said that his faculty recognizes the importance of exposing undergraduates to research.
"Some upper year courses are developed around a research project, for example around a set of archival records, where each student is assigned some aspect of [a] family's history. Then, at the end of the term, they hold a day-long seminar to present their research papers, reconstituting the family history from its various parts," he said as an example of research in one class. As well, some courses require a thesis or fieldwork.
Miller also pointed to the Arts Student Employment Fund (ASEF) as a program that encourages students to get involved in professors' research projects. ASEF is administered by the Arts Undergraduate Society, and allows professors to hire undergraduate students to do work-study on their projects.
"These are highly appreciated by arts students. We're giving the opportunity, but it's up to them to take the opportunity," said Rahim Surani, vice-president academic of the AUS, of the placements.
Surani explained that the research jobs are valued by students planning on going into either graduate studies or into the non-academic job market. Not only do these jobs offer work experience and the chance to learn valuable skills, but they are also self-guided learning experiences.
They also offer benefits to the professors involved.
"What we're trying to do is encourage professors to hire students in research in any way possible. That way we're giving students a chance, and we're reducing the workload of the professor," said Surani.
So far this year more than 80 jobs have been funded through the ASEF program, and there are more than 30 other postings waiting to be filled.
Pharmacology professor Guillermina Almazan has had several undergraduate students do research projects in her lab, as part of a credit course. She said she wishes there were more opportunities like this for undergraduates.
"They should -- in science it's very important to get training on the bench," she said.
Almazan said that she finds the students who come to her lab are generally very hard working, and interested in learning how a lab works, although the short-term nature of the classes can sometimes be disruptive.
"It's difficult -- we're working with a very difficult system here. I like to take students for a year, to get them used to the lab," she said.
One who became very used to the lab was Shireen Hossain. Hossain came to Almazan's lab through the undergraduate program, and now plans to do her PhD -- a not uncommon occurrence. She said that the opportunity to see how a lab functions was invaluable to her education.
"It's a good experience, to get outside of the lecture room -- it's important to get hands-on experience and the opportunities to learn the scientific approach," she said.