When undergraduate students do hands-on research with eminent professors on projects that matter, everyone wins. Students become better thinkers and citizens; the professors who mentor them become better teachers and researchers. Employers get access to employees with critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills that are so important in an economy increasingly dependent on innovation and cross-cultural teamwork. Undergraduates who participate in research are prepared to contribute to their communities and to enter a globally competitive economic environment.
“Research” means more than laboratory science and engineering. It includes creative endeavors in the arts and humanities. And as dean of the University Honors College, I have found few experiences more fun and rewarding than getting to work with students on projects covering every imaginable subject. In the Honors College, we have made research the capstone of the undergraduate experience in the form of a senior thesis. My colleagues will probably agree with me that there is something special about being there at that “aha” moment when students discover what an experiment is telling them or find their interpretive voice through a musical composition or literary work.
Chelsea Byrd (OSU B.S., Microbiology, 2001; Ph.D., Molecular and Cellular Biology, 2005) is a great example of a student who benefited from an undergraduate research experience. Chelsea works for SIGA, a Corvallis biotechnology company, where she designs countermeasures for infectious diseases. She discovered her passion for research as an undergraduate in my laboratory as she helped sort out how bacteria can degrade environmental pollutants. Chelsea also gives back to her alma mater by serving on the Board of Directors of the OSU Alumni Association.
Connecting the Dots
Few academic experiences have such long-lasting benefits. Studies, including the National Survey of Student Engagement (Indiana University), consistently reveal the positive effects of a research experience. For example, students who do research are more likely to stay in school, to experience diversity and to view their entire undergraduate experience more positively. They gain confidence and become better communicators. Classroom learning becomes more real as it gets put to use in the laboratory or in primary source analysis. Research experiences have even greater impacts on members of underrepresented groups.
Research is one of the most effective ways to help students move from lower-order thinking skills — remembering, repeating, understanding — to higher-order skills — creating, analyzing, evaluating. Students also learn to work independently but as part of a team; they learn to collaborate. These skills and experiences are increasingly vital to professional success. Graduate and professional schools expect that students will have had independent research experience, and employers are more likely to hire an individual equipped with the advanced skills developed in research.
Oregon State University provides many opportunities for undergraduates to do research. With more than 1,000 professors working in diverse disciplines, research at OSU is not just about white lab coats and test tubes. Our “laboratories” include estuaries and open seas, farm fields and forests, art studios and music practice rooms. Through these varied experiences, students learn about more than the world around them. Most importantly, they learn about themselves.