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Teaching through research

  • Teaching through research
    Teaching Through Research    Photo by Jes Therkelsen
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Original investigation is woven into the undergraduate curriculum.

"We’ve determined as a faculty that our undergraduate students should comprehend the tools of research as an essential part of their future problem-solving and decision-making,” says Joel Schwartz, director of the Charles Center and dean of honors and interdisciplinary studies.

Ordinarily, students would wait until graduate school or until they begin their careers before taking the next step: posing an original question, designing a method of investigation and then devising a way to share their conclusions. William & Mary students get involved in research early—often as early as the freshman year.

“Our students are ready, our faculty are capable, and upping our game raises the intellectual level and provides competitive advantages across the board.”

Each academic field, from mathematics and physics to English and the performing arts, has its own definition of research, and the teaching/research effort acknowledges and builds on those individual approaches.

Freshman Seminars are the first “book-end” of the College’s undergraduate research program. All first-year students take small, focused seminars (offered across all the disciplines), learn research methods and complete a significant project.

At the other end, about 10 percent of graduating seniors complete and defend a supervised Honors thesis in their major. Some departments require their majors to complete a capstone senior project.

“The real challenge comes between the end of the freshman year and the start of the senior year,” says Schwartz. “A successful student research experience requires faculty supervision at a very individual level. It might also involve travel to conduct research on site or in a library or archive. How can we implement such resource-intensive learning across the board?”

In some cases, faculty have involved students in their own research. The curriculum makes room for “independent study” and “independent research” courses, where students earn credits conducting research or scholarship alongside a faculty member.

Research pathways

Many faculty now also integrate elements of research into their classroom teaching, or design research pathways that flow naturally from one course to the next.

For example, Assistant Professor of Physics Seth Aubin has added a challenging circuit design project to his course on digital electronics. In the Sharpe Community Scholars Program, students complete coursework and conduct research over two semesters while working with partner organizations in the community.

Summer has proven a fertile time for offering new teaching/research opportunities. The classical studies department, for example, offers an intensive three-week summer program in ancient Roman studies. A faculty member leads students to sites and relates what they are seeing and experiencing to the classroom knowledge they already have. The insights that result can be key to informing a student’s research.

“I could not have performed my research adequately without visiting the actual sites,” says Brent Bickings ’11, whose project focused on archaeological and architectural evidence. “I was able to explore each room of the compound and literally photographed every inch of the site for my research paper.” In spring 2011, Bickings was awarded honors from the religious studies department for his subsequent thesis, “Was the Western Diaspora Cut Off from Israel? A Case Study of Sardis and Hamath Tiberias.”

Another summer research program is the interdisciplinary Bosnia Project, where students follow a preparatory spring course with five weeks on site. They engage with community partners, integrate academic and experiential knowledge and produce documentaries about identity and life in Bosnia.

“We’re seeing an interesting shift toward ‘research abroad’ programs,” says Schwartz, “taking coursework out into the world and applying a hands-on research orientation.”

The College has also expanded opportunities for students to present their research. Along with traditional publishing venues, students participate in presentation fairs and poster sessions on campus and attend and present at professional conferences. Students can also help organize research conferences and edit journals.

A Laboratory for Cultural HistoriansIn spring 2011, for example, undergraduate students worked with a faculty advisor, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Christopher Freiman, to host the department’s first undergraduate philosophy conference. A dozen students from William & Mary and other universities submitted original philosophy papers for blind review by the W&M Philosophy Club. Eight papers were chosen for presentation at the conference.

Each student presenter had 20 minutes to share her or his work, and then the floor was opened for comments and general discussion between the faculty and students. “Giving a presentation and responding to feedback on the fly is a really valuable skill and not something a student would get to do in a typical undergraduate course,” says Freiman. “The conference also gave students the unique opportunity to evaluate each other’s work. Learning to both get and give comments can give students a good head start should they decide to continue with advanced study.”

W&M students in the honor society Pi Sigma Alpha can sign up for a course and serve on the student editorial board of the Pi Sigma Alpha Undergraduate Journal of Politics, published twice a year at the College by the American Political Science Association. Papers are submitted from undergraduates across the country. Students vet the methodology and quality of papers, and advisory faculty members at various universities review and comment on the papers students move forward. The student editors decide which papers are published.

Associate Professor of Government Christine Nemacheck, one of two professors teaching the course, notes that journal submissions cut across the entire field of political science, so participating students gain exposure to subfields they might not have studied yet. They also get a feel for what students at other universities are doing and how they’re setting up their research. “This improves our own students’ writing and research skills, and sharpens their critical thinking,” says Nemacheck.

Process is key

Attention to the processes of research is key, says Schwartz. “Of course it is important that students and their faculty mentors are discovering and presenting research that expands our knowledge of the world,” he said. “But research at the undergraduate level has benefits quite independent of these research products: it helps develop the student’s capacity to solve problems, think critically, work productively both alone and in teams, and communicate persuasively. These are all traditional goals of a liberal arts education.”

As the teaching/research effort gains momentum, the College has attracted national attention as a possible model for other universities. In October 2010 the College co-hosted with the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences a two-day conference titled, “Creating a Culture of Research on Campus”—and registered about three times the expected number of participants.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose 2007 grant to the College helped fund about 90 projects to incorporate research into the curriculum, has awarded additional funding to expand undergraduate research across the entire Global Studies curriculum. And as private donors learn more about how the research experience benefits students, the College is attracting more support to its Faculty-Student Research funding initiative.

“Some institutions have emphasized faculty research at the expense of their commitment to the education of undergraduates,” Schwartz says. “William & Mary has invested in undergraduate research as a way to expand its commitment to undergraduates, and integrate its research and teaching missions. Currently about 75 percent of our undergraduate students have at least one significant research experience before graduation. We’d like every student to have this kind of opportunity.”  Ideation