Database to centralize research opportunities

Biology professor Robert Donaldson will spend the next few months as a “traveling salesman” for undergraduate research opportunities.

As the new co-faculty directors for undergraduate research, Donaldson and associate professor of German and international affairs Margaret Gonglewski will knock on doors of GW’s departments to build a comprehensive website of funding and apprenticeship information on research.

“I got interested in the broadening of undergraduate research, not just in the sciences, but everywhere,” Donaldson said. “Now we just need to learn about it and spread the news about it.”

While the University has seen about a 50 percent increase in interest in undergraduate research awards like the George Gamow and Luther Rice fellowships this year, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Stephen Ehrmann said he cannot put his finger on exactly how many students work as research apprentices for professors – the other half of undergraduate research GW wants to grow.

By working with the Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research, the three-person team hopes to go online to show off how students and faculty can work together to grow GW’s research portfolio and enhance student learning.

“One of the contributions we can make is to count [undergraduate research], make it more visible that GW is already a pretty special place when it comes to, in general, students putting what they’re learning to work into the real world,” Ehrmann said.

Donaldson added that interest in undergraduate research is contingent on prospective and current students and faculty knowing what is available – heightening the need for a website showcasing research that students have done with faculty, available funding and how students can get involved.

Current online offerings through the Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research are too “scattered” and difficult to navigate, Donaldson said.

“The main challenge in an institution as complex as GW is communication across colleges and programs,” Paul Hoyt-O’Connor, director of the Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research, said. “That’s something we’re trying to tackle. This will, I think, only cement and further formalize our interactions with faculty when it comes to undergraduate research.”

The GW School of Business and the University Honors Program also have systems in place to match students with faculty research projects.

This academic year, 22 undergraduates have assisted 16 professors in research through the honors program’s initiative.

The six-year-old Research Experience for Undergraduates program in the business school has seen rapid expansion, going from pairing five students with five professors in 2009 to 19 students being matched up with 16 professors this year.

But for more undergraduates to perform research with faculty – a relationship many say is mutually beneficial to teaching, learning and research – Hoyt-O’Connor said a “culture shift” may be needed. The University’s 14,534 graduate students traditionally fill research assistant roles across campuses for academic credit or hourly wages.

Ehrmann said the University would also keep its eyes fixed on using research to enhance student learning.

“If you’re an institution that’s trying to ramp up faculty research, there are sort of two ways you can go. One is it can eat away at the students’ education, and the other it can reinforce the students’ education,” Ehrmann said. “We really want it to be the second.”

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