Some 46 percent of seniors who graduated in May 2009 had participated in undergraduate research, according to Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel Wubah.
Part of the reason for such a high percentage is that research is not confined to the sciences but also encompasses other fields, such as the fine arts and architecture. In the non-science fields, research often takes the form of what Wubah calls "discovery-based creativity"; in other words, students learn by creating or designing original works in their field.
In Wubah's opinion, research of all kinds should be a key component of education. "One of my primary goals is that all undergraduate students will have the opportunity to be engaged in these sorts of experiences," he says. And his office has taken steps to ensure that undergraduate research will continue to grow as part of the undergraduate experience.
Whether it's discovery-based creativity, such as an architecture student designing a solar house, or the hands-on engineering experiences offered by the Ware Lab, students across the university are engaging in research in its many faces and forms.
AGRICULTURE IN THE ANDES
In summer 2009, Lindsay Hall and Jess Martin trekked to Ecuador with a group of undergraduates to help rural villagers improve their farming techniques. After two weeks of intensive Spanish language courses, the group set off into the Andes Mountains, where they interviewed local farmers about their participation in workshops given by the Ecuadorian ministry of agriculture, dairy, water, and fisheries.
The students' role was to determine how farmers were using the methods discussed in the workshops given by the nation's ministry of agriculture, dairy, water, and fisheries. It also provided the students with an experience in cultural discovery.
The students' role was to determine how farmers were using the methods discussed in the workshops, but it was also an experience in cultural discovery. "My whole career has focused on finding the connection between social, environmental, and economic issues," says Hall, an environmental policy and planning senior. The most important thing the internship taught her, she says, was that people are willing to make changes to help the environment if you give them an economic incentive. "They're so dependent on the environment that they're willing to take steps to protect it."
Martin, a senior majoring in geography, crop and soil environmental sciences, and environmental policy and planning, says the internship was the perfect opportunity to combine her interests in language, agriculture, and travel. "For me, it was like all of the different parts of my life just came together."
Martin's long-term career goal is to focus on highland agriculture in Nepal, where Tibetan refugees and the poorest Nepalese compete for land use. "When something happens that's unfair, especially with respect to people's livelihoods--the land and markets they have access to and the environmental degradation of their homes--you have to get riled up about it. Passion is the driver of activism."
"When you see firsthand people suffering from problems related to the environment, it inspires you; it puts things in perspective," adds Hall, who plans to attend law school to focus on environmental law.
Research puts many things in perspective for other undergraduate students as well--and provides them with hands-on experiences they will remember for a lifetime.
When Susan White, a psychology professor in the College of Science, offered Rose Nevill an opportunity as an independent evaluator in a treatment study focused on teenagers with autism, it was the end of a search for Nevill.
"I wanted to find some research experience because I am applying to graduate schools," says Nevill, a senior psychology major.
For Nevill, the position blends her desire for research experience with her interest in treatment options for people with autism and intellectual disabilities. Her role is to evaluate study participants as they begin the 12-week cognitive-behavioral therapy program and then to re-evaluate them at the end of the study to determine if the treatment has helped them.
All of the participants have high-functioning autism, which means that they attend school and can speak and communicate. Still, because of their autism, they often have high anxiety and struggle in situations ranging from approaching new people to school performance to specific phobias. Nevill sits down with each participant and tries to identify which issues cause them the most stress. Then, graduate students counsel the teenagers based on her findings.
"It made me realize that treatment is specifically an area I want to go into as a profession. Before I was unsure about that path," says Nevill of the experience. She says having a mentor like White has really helped her navigate the waters between undergraduate studies and pursuing graduate work. "Dr. White's also been a great mentor to me. She's given me a lot of help in applying to graduate schools. She really trusted me with the role of independent evaluator, not something you'd usually give to an undergraduate, so she really gave me some great opportunities."
FROM PAPER TO PRACTICE
Corey McCalla, a fifth-year architecture student, is a perfect example of how students can put theory into practice and put terminology to use in their research endeavors. McCalla served as a lead student on the Lumenhaus project, in which students from four Virginia Tech colleges designed and built a solar house.
McCalla worked on an interdisciplinary team whose skills encompassed architecture, landscape architecture, industrial design, computer science, engineering, and business. He also worked with professionals in the field, such as those from companies sponsoring the program, architects, and lighting specialists. "The joy of working on the project was that I got to work with and learn from people in so many different fields," he says.
The house was entered in the Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C., in fall 2009, where the team was among 20 others from around the world whose houses were judged on various criteria, including architecture, engineering, market viability, and net metering (the amount of power the panels produced in excess of the home's requirements). The team was also selected as the only U.S. team to participate in the Solar Decathlon Europe competition in June 2010.
After graduating in May, McCalla will follow the solar house to Madrid for the competition. Though he does not know whether he will attend graduate school or seek a job in the architecture field after that, he's glad for the experiences he's gained through the project. "I've been part of the project from start to finish, which gives me a foot in the door or a jump start. I've also met professionals and seen what that world is like. That gives me a significant advantage."
THE UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH INSTITUTE
Established in 2005, the Undergraduate Research Institute (URI) in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS) reflects a desire to promote and facilitate the research endeavors of undergraduates in the college.
"In every career there are forms of research," says Diana Ridgwell, URI director. "Learning how to think critically and analytically helps students no matter what field they're in. It helps them come full circle with their learning."
The URI facilitates research by offering courses and by helping to match students with faculty mentors, promoting undergraduate involvement in faculty-led studies, and providing grants to aid students in their endeavors.
Rana Fayez, a senior communication major, has benefited from the resources offered by the institute. In addition to an Undergraduate Research Diversity Grant from the Center for Academic Enrichment and Excellence, Fayez received a $500 URI grant to pursue co-cultural research on the role of minorities in punk rock culture. She visited cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., to conduct interviews and eventually co-presented her findings with her faculty mentor, Edd Sewell, at the Undergraduate Research Conference on campus and at the Popular Culture Association in the South Conference in Wilmington, N.C.
"I was really interested in the ethnography behind the music," Fayez says, adding that punk rock is a personal interest of hers. "It was a very validating experience to explain my experiences in more academic terms."
Fayez says that a breakthrough moment for her came during a class taught by Ridgwell on research methods. "I learned through the class that it's OK to do research because you're trying to learn more about yourself, as long as it will also help others."