Archived Speeches

Rodney A. Erickson Remarks
Undergraduate Research at Penn State
Committee on Educational Policy, Board of Trustees
May 11, 2001

I’m pleased to report on a significant component of undergraduate education at Penn State–the involvement of undergraduate students in research activities. Research introduces students to the joy of discovery, and makes the process of learning an active rather than a passive one.

My remarks will be followed by first-hand accounts from three Penn State students. I’ll introduce them in a few minutes. First, let’s look at the benefits of research from the perspective of the undergraduate student.

Research can help students decide on a career path. It helps them decide if graduate school is the right choice. Ros Millman, quoted on the screen, was an undergraduate student who was an essential member of my research group for more than two years. Her experience helped to shape her interests in public policy. She went on to earn a graduate degree at Princeton University and a subsequent career in Washington, D.C. Ros served as the Deputy Director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the Clinton Administration, and was named a Penn State Alumni Fellow last fall.

Generations of students have asked for relevance in their studies: “Why do I need to learn this? When will I use it?” Research offers students a concrete demonstration of the principles and concepts covered in textbooks and lab sections. The active learning element of research allows students to make connections to their own interests that may not ordinarily be made in passive learning environments.

Research experience has been credited with improving students’ motivation for learning. Students can pursue their individual interests. Intellectual curiosity is sparked, and research provides undergraduates with an opportunity to take greater ownership of their own learning process.

Research projects often provide badly needed financial support for undergraduates and better prepare them for paid off-campus jobs or internship opportunities. It may, at the same time, yield academic credits toward their degrees. The students’ work is excellent value for the faculty member, too. And undergraduates, as newcomers to the research process, rarely feel that any of the tasks related to the research are beneath their dignity.

Mentor relationships with faculty often evolve. Students develop a different type of relationship with faculty than is possible within the classroom. The interaction is usually more intense and takes place over a longer period of time. It often provides the basis for a lifetime of personal connections and career guidance. Faculty research mentors are a great source of references and advice when students apply for jobs or graduate school.

Research–as an active learning process–challenges students to frame questions, develop a strategy for testing their propositions, analyze information, and report the results. Students learn to support an argument, to tolerate ambiguity, and often to see the world as the more complex place that it usually is.

Students learn to work as a member of a research team. Research often involves group work, more in-depth interactions with colleagues, and development of improved communication skills. Employers are increasingly concerned about these characteristics.

Writing and presentation skills improve as students present their work at conferences and poster sessions. Published research papers and research experiences strengthen students’ resumés and graduate school applications. It begins the habit of sharing research with other scholars, as well as appreciating and regularly reading published research.

Besides the benefits to students, the University also benefits when undergraduates are involved in research:
Students bring “energy and enthusiasm” to research teams. They’re hungry to learn and they often keep asking for more to do.

Undergraduate students ask questions that can be very insightful–sometimes quite by accident–and can change the ways faculty approach research questions. They’re not yet afraid to make mistakes. They force us to respond to questions in different ways and on different terms than we often do with graduate students and other faculty members. Faculty learn from students, just as students learn from faculty.

Student researchers contribute significantly to the world of knowledge. I’m thinking, for example, of Nicholas Bond, our undergraduate student in Astronomy and Astrophysics who recently discovered–in collaboration with other astronomers–giant “superbubbles” in a very distant galaxy. Nicholas has received substantial professional acclaim and major national media coverage. This image is a schematic of multiple superbubbles which are huge spherical regions where thousands of exploding stars have blown holes in the gaseous medium between the stars. (Don’t ask me to explain this in any more detail–but trust me, it’s significant stuff.)

Undergraduate research breaks down the divisions between undergraduates and grad students and between faculty and students. And, it’s a great factor in building maturity among young people as they interact with more seasoned professionals.

Offering strong programs supporting undergraduate research strengthens our requests for research funds. There are an increasing number of federal research grants that now require evidence of undergraduate student involvement in research as a condition of the award of funding.

Offering undergraduate research is a valuable recruiting tool, especially for academically gifted students. After all, the potential involvement of undergraduates in research is one of the most important assets that research universities such as Penn State have to offer prospective students.

With the cooperation of the academic deans at Penn State, we have been able to increase the number of students who are engaged in undergraduate research opportunities. Our experience indicates that this is not a costly venture in monetary terms, although it does require substantial commitments of faculty time.

Let me give you an example. For nearly a decade, Penn State had a small fund administered from my office called the “President’s Fund for Research.” This fund was used to support faculty research. It was customary for faculty to write lengthy proposals to get a few hundred or, at best, a few thousand dollars for their projects.

Believing that faculty time could be put to better use, I changed the format for the President’s Fund. We block granted the funds to the colleges and told the deans to pass on the funds to faculty for the exclusive use of supporting undergraduates involved in research. We also required the colleges to match my funding at least one-for-one, and we specifically stipulated that faculty should not write more than a paragraph or two supporting their request. The results have been positive beyond our hopes.

Information as to the exact number of students involved in these block grants is difficult to pin down. But, our data from the 1999-2000 academic year–which is admittedly conservative–show that total funding of $241,000 supported at least 295 projects involving 200 faculty and over 470 undergraduates.

In addition, a recent survey of Penn State’s colleges reveals that over 5,200 undergraduates participated in some form of research this year. We know that about 500 undergraduate students complete a formal research thesis each year, working one-on-one with a faculty member. Our payroll data scans indicate that nearly 600 undergraduates each year are financially supported by faculty members’ sponsored research projects. And many other students simply volunteer for a chance to participate on faculty research projects.

Let me share just a few of the first-rate examples of undergraduate research at Penn State.

The Learning Factory Showcase displays the results of senior capstone design courses in engineering. Students work in teams on industrially sponsored engineering design projects. The projects include both written and oral presentations. Students, industry sponsors, faculty, and parents attend a Project Showcase at the Nittany Lion Inn and a panel of industry judges give awards for Best Product Design and Best Process Design.

The Schreyer Honors College and the Office of Undergraduate Education host an Undergraduate Exhibition every March. This event provides an opportunity for all undergraduates at Penn State to share their research and creative accomplishments– from art and anthropology to astrophysics and engineering. The number of participating students is increasing each year.

Last year’s overall winner was Ndidi Moses, a Media Studies graduate from the Class of 2000 whom you will hear from in a few minutes.

Here are photos of two Schreyer Scholars who exhibited in the Undergraduate Exhibition 2000, shown with their thesis advisors. Kenneth Urish, a senior in chemical engineering, works alongside his advisor, Dr. Wayne Curtis. Ken’s research involves monitoring the respiration of cells growing in bioreactors to produce pharmaceuticals. Julie Burger, a senior majoring in nutrition and biology, is supervised by her advisor, Dr. Catherine Ross. Julie is studying an enzyme involved in the regulation of Vitamin A metabolism.

WISER (Women in Science and Engineering) is a program for first-year women students in science-related fields--science here broadly defined. Students are matched with a lab or faculty member and agree to work at least five hours a week. The purpose is to retain women students in science and engineering fields. In these photos, Tia Gamble (a WISER student) assists Renata Engel with composites manufacturing and technology research. Lindsay White (another WISER student) and Allen Phelps conduct enzyme and amino acid studies.

The Eberly College of Science offers a Summer Research Program, funded by the John and Elizabeth Holmes Teas Scholarship. Its goal is to support every interested chemistry major for one summer of research; 80-90 percent of undergraduates in chemistry will do research at some point in their undergraduate careers, and many graduate with one or more publications. In this photo from Research Penn State, undergraduate chemistry major Morgan Mihok uses a laser to break apart molecules. Morgan and faculty member Tom Mallouk are trying to create a clean, renewable alternative to fossil fuels.

Research sometimes involves international study–often a first for our students. Students from Geosciences, Art History, Arts, and Landscape Architecture have participated in archeological fieldwork in southern Egypt, under the direction of several Penn State faculty. In this photo, Karen Waryas a Schreyer Scholar in Earth Sciences, and Nick Moose, an art history major, work at the hand-auger project, sampling deposits and locating the groundwater level. The students also cleaned, sorted, and drew artifacts.

Closer to home, Dr. Lakshman Yapa, known as Lucky to his friends and students, leads a student service-learning project which researches urban poverty in West Philadelphia. Students undertake research-based thesis projects looking at different aspects of urban life, living for several weeks in a Quaker work camp located in the midst of the community.

Besides promoting undergraduate research, Lucky Yapa is helping the students understand poverty in a different way. Students are generating new knowledge and changing the way we look at poverty.
Autumn Hannah, a Sociology major, has studied the potential of urban gardens to increase food production and supply fresh produce to city restaurants, while Meredith Oram, majoring in Nutrition and Spanish, studied nutrition and food prices in the neighborhood.

The Offices of the Vice President for Research and the Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education, in cooperation with the Schreyer Honors College, now regularly devote an issue of Research/Penn State to undergraduate research. All of the writing is done by undergraduates.

Research universities are showing (once again) that research and undergraduate education complement each other. Through research, we are able to offer personal attention and hands-on experiences to our undergraduate students. And students tell us that these experiences are making a real difference in their lives.

This morning, we’ll hear from three students who participated in research at Penn State as undergraduates. First is Ryan Newman, a graduating senior from Yardley, Pennsylvania and an Economics major in the Smeal College of Business Administration. His research in Cameroon was presented at an international demography conference in Washington, DC.

Next we will hear from Kelly Walkovich, graduating this weekend in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Kelly is from Indiana, Pennsylvania. She received the Gerard Houser Award for the top entry at this year’s Undergraduate Research Exhibition.

Our third student is Ndidi Moses from Seymour, Connecticut. Ndidi is a former McNair Scholar. Her research investigated the effects of advertising messages on African-American women’s self-esteem. She is currently a graduate student in the College of Communications here at Penn State.

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