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Update on our Faculty-Student Research Initiative

William and Mary’s Faculty-Student Research Initiative has made a great deal of progress towards one of its primary goals—bringing research inside the undergraduate curriculum.

“We’re moving on a number of fronts,” said Carl Strikwerda, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “We’re pushing a lot of innovative projects using the Mellon money and the Quality Enhancement Plan—QEP—money that came out of the SACS accreditation. We have all these ways that we’re giving small amounts of money to faculty members to come up with projects to test new ideas about how to bring students into research.”

SACS, or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, recommended that colleges promote independent inquiry by students. The QEP was drawn up to address means of promoting independent inquiry, in part by emphasizing faculty-student research. The Faculty-Student Research Initiative itself was begun in 2006 and later received financial backing from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Joel Schwartz is director of the College’s Roy R. Charles Center, which promotes undergraduate research and scholarship, and so became the natural headquarters for the Faculty-Student Research Initiative, administered through a faculty panel known as the QEP/Mellon Committee. Schwartz noted that sciences seem to be more natural incubators for involving undergraduates, as researchers often bring students into their labs.

The QEP/Mellon Committee wanted to create similar research opportunities in other disciplines. To that end, the committee conducted information sessions and workshops for faculty in the humanities, social sciences and arts. A particularly effective component of these workshops were presentations by non-science faculty who have successfully integrated research experiences into their coursework.

“Sometimes we use the term ‘teaching with research’: getting at the same concepts, theories and knowledge,” Schwartz said, “but via research experiences where you learn it as an activity, not as a lecture.” Their efforts were successful. The committee’s first annual report reports the initiation of 26 funded faculty-student projects in the past year: 10 are in humanities disciplines; 9 are in the social sciences; 4 are in the sciences; and 3 are in mathematics.

One of the projects involved the digital electronics course taught by Seth Aubin, assistant professor of physics. Backed by funding from the committee, Aubin was able to buy some electronic equipment that allowed him to incorporate a class research project on integrated field programmable gate array chips into the last month of the class.

“On the other end of the academic spectrum—in the Department of Classical Studies—some Latin courses this coming semester are going to be organized where students are going to be forming research hypotheses and be steered toward research projects,” Schwartz said. “They will do the literature reviews and a lot of the preliminary work and then they’ll actually go to Roman sites with faculty in the summer and actually do the research.”

He said the initiative is being organized by Barbette Spaeth, chair of the department. Schwartz said the experience might serve as a model for incorporating research more fully into William & Mary’s study-abroad programs.

“Some of the problems we’ve had trying to integrate research into study-abroad is that you go there and there’s not much time,” he explained. “Here, they’re really doing all the literature review and preparation in advance, so the ducks are really lined up and they can get there and start using archaeological sites or original sources very quickly and productively.”

The Faculty-Student Research Initiative is attracting additional financial support. Schwartz pointed to the recent establishment of the Weingartner Global Initiative, a recent initiative brought about by the generosity of Mary Ann and Werner Weingartner. The program creates a two-year Weingartner Professorship in International Studies, who will mentor two to six student researchers. Schwartz said he expected the name of the first Weingartner Professor to be announced soon.

Schwartz said that the initiative continues to encourage the development of “co-curricular” research, the traditional types of arrangement in which faculty mentor students in their labs and on projects outside of class. He mentioned the success of the Dintersmith Fellowships.   i