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    Connections Newsletter
    Issue 3                                                                                                                                         Spring Semester 2012


    A Note from the Collaborative Director

    Undergraduate Research: Adjusting to Life at a Liberal Arts College

    2012-2013 McNair Scholars

    Fall-Summer Collaborative Grants

    Convention Spotlight



    • Kaela Gedda
    • Jens Paasen
    • Gretchen Panzer
    • Hannah Schmitt
    • Luanne Spence
    • Sarah Titus

    Collaborative Research Stories


    Important Dates

    May 4, 2012 Student Academic Travel Grant and Attendee Grant applications due

    A Note from the Collaborative Director

    The Challenge of the Count

    Dr. John Pennington

    Director of the Collaborative: Center for Undergraduate Research

    The Spring 2012 volume of the CUR Quarterly  (Council on Undergraduate Research) has an enticing cover: a student, kneeling in a field of wildgrass, is intently painting on a canvas (we cannot see the image). The cover’s title is “The Challenge of the Count.” As a literature professor, I immediately began to fill in the scene: the Count, of course, was an allusion to Bram Stoker’s 1897 creation, Count Dracula. The student, obviously, was mesmerized by the Count, painting his monstrous, yet debonair and alluring portrait to bring him alive. Vampires aren’t supposed to cast a reflection, so her painting becomes a mirror reflecting the Count’s lack of soul.count.chocula

    “The Challenge of the Count.” Yes, indeed. With the invention of the sparkling Edward Cullen from the Twilight series, Count Dracula’s position as top vampire is under attack, with vampires casting their dark shadows over popular culture like never before, even having their own diaries, for badness sake. Yes, indeed, the Count is under attack. This will be a great quarterly to sink my teeth into, I thought, especially if I could masticate and ruminate over a bowl of Count Chocula with some juicy red strawberries.

    Or so I thought. Unfortunately, my interpretation of the CUR Quarterly cover was just a bit off. In fact, it was a total misreading, though, I would argue, an intriguing one. What is this challenge of the count, then? Are you ready? Accountability.  Or to translate into its more menacing double: Assessment. Well, at least I was connecting two things that many view as blood suckers! Some might even argue that academic assessment is the true blood-sucking engine in higher education. My initial reading of the CUR cover, ironically, may not have been that far “off.”

    Undergraduate research has been defined as one of those “high-impact practices” that George Kuh highlights in his foundational 2008 study, High Impact Practices: What They Are, Who has Access to Them, and Why they Matter (AAC&U). While we all intuitively know that collaborative undergraduate research is important, and while we feel confident espousing the benefits such research has for developing critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, recruiting and retaining students, attracting diverse student populations, and enhancing the intellectual environment on college and university campuses, the fact remains is that we have little objective research that tells us this is so. In a way, we’re asked to believe in the myth of undergraduate research in the same way that we are asked to believe in the myth that sunlight is fatal to Dracula and every other conceivable vampire expect for Mr. Cullen.

    With tightened budgets across higher education, with state governments and accreditation agencies giving more scrutiny to such programs, the reality is that assessment is key to the future of undergraduate education. If we can provide empirical evidence that undergraduate research does what we promise, then the future of funded undergraduate programs looks bright, maybe even bright enough to sparkle Edward to oblivion. Jayne E. Brownell and Lynn E. Swaner, in Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality (2010), begin to tackle undergraduate assessment.  Their findings indicate some very positive outcomes, as I reported on the last “Connections” article I wrote. Those outcomes include

    • Higher rate of persistence
    • Higher rate of graduate school enrollment
    • Improvement in research skills
    • Increased interaction with faculty and peers
    • Gains in problem solving and critical thinking
    • Greater satisfaction with educational experience

    We can assume that there will be many future assessment studies that attempt to measure the effectiveness of undergraduate research.

    The CUR Quarterly volume focusing on the “The Challenge of the Count” address a central issue that faces undergraduate research programs across the county: how do we “count” or quantify undergraduate research?  Linda Blockus, the guest editor of the volume, opens the journal with a blunt statement: “Right now, how many students are engaged in research activities on a national level is anyone’s guess.” Her article articulates the difficulty of counting what constitutes as undergraduate research. Let’s listen in a bit:

    "First of all, we need to agree on a concrete definition of ‘undergraduate research participation.’ Do we only count those students who develop their own projects and do original work? Do we include students who engage in ongoing projects with faculty and graduate students as contributing members of a team . . . ? How do we count students’ participation in creative projects in the arts or in applied projects in professional programs such as business and journalism? Do community-based research projects count as part of undergraduate research or are they counted under the umbrella of service learning? How do we account for students who have authentic research experiences in regular coursework? How should we consider students who engage in activities that support the research enterprise, such as coding data, making chemical solutions, or assisting with literature searches?"

    Her next paragraph asks another round of very complex questions. And she provides no answers, for assessing undergraduate research is a complex issue. In the good old days we could recognize a vampire when we saw him or her; now in the twilight of the classic monster, we’re not quite certain. So there is still a connection to the Count after all!

    The challenge, then, for assessing undergraduate research begins with how we count such research. The Collaborative’s definition, while founded on the Council of Undergraduate Research’s definition, is also more expansive, describing collaborative undergraduate research as a developing process and that comes in a variety of forms—emanating from classroom projects, research essays, to the more traditional research projects outside the classroom environment. Some schools simply count the number of grants given out by the centralized undergraduate research center, the number of McNair scholars on campus, and the number of students who attend NCUR (the National Conference on Undergraduate Research) and other funded sources that lead to collaborative research.  On one level, this approach makes sense, yet on other level this count will miss much of the undergraduate research that happens on a campus.

    So where do we go? We know that we can’t entomb ourselves—even if only during the day—from the assessment machine. A simple answer is that we need to begin collecting the myriad of research stories that will give us a holistic depiction of undergraduate research being done on the St. Norbert campus.

    Here’s where we need you. It’s easy to add up the number of grants the Collaborative awards—for student academic travel (attendee and participation grants), for NCUR travel, for McNair participation, for summer-fall research grants, for pedagogical grants.  But we realize that such numbers would capture only a partial picture. So the Collaborative will develop a more systematic plan for quantifying undergraduate research at St. Norbert. Look for the following this semester or early fall semester:

                •An updated website that will allow faculty and students to upload research projects

                •A Collaborative liaison, who will keep in contact with divisions and disciplines to catalogue research projects and to assemble “research stories” that will be highlighted on the website and in the “Connections” newsletter

                •A survey that will be sent each semester asking for evidence about undergraduate collaborate  research

    This is only a starting point.  Collecting data may be the easy part, kind of like discovering the tomb where Dracula resides. The difficult part will be to create an assessment measure that give us authentic assessment evidence that encompasses direct/indirect, formative/summative, objective/subjective, and quantitative/qualitative measures, thus providing us with truly useful data and a unique collection of research stories that will narrate the breadth of undergraduate research being done at the college. This will be the difficult part, for we know that no matter how many times that wooden stake is driven into Count Dracula, he continues to rise from the undead, for you must always count on the count for assessment, and that is the challenge.



    St. Norbert Collaborative

    Phone: (920) 403-3147
    Fax: (920) 403-4086

    St. Norbert College • 100 Grant Street • De Pere, WI 54115-2099 • 920-337-3181