Mentoring undergraduate research

By Danise Jones

As part of a year-long research project, Jared Bartman ’10 and his research team developed a business plan that helped them launch their music venture, Evening’s Empire. Daniel Monroe ’10 and Luke Pfister ’10 used a 3-D inertial measurement unit and a GPS unit to develop a prototype for an inertial navigation system (INS). Matthew Westbrook ’10 studied the effect that moon illumination has on the activity of nocturnal rodents.

Like other undergraduates at Bradley, these students shared their research results and creative endeavors at the University’s Student Scholarship Exposition held each spring. They also agree their scholarly experience has benefited them in landing a job or internship, or launching a company.

Students collaborating on research/creative endeavors with faculty mentors at Bradley are easy to find. In fact, research/creative endeavors are firmly embedded into Bradley’s character as they are considered an outgrowth of the institution’s strategic mission: “the University is committed to nurturing the multifaceted development of students to enable them to become leaders, innovators, and productive members of society.”

Although research has long been woven into the University’s essence, Bradley’s focus on faculty research and creative production accelerated in 1990 when the University selected it as one of three special emphases to concentrate on during the next decade. That was followed in 2000 by Building a Foundation for Student-Faculty Creative Collaboration, which focused on increasing opportunities for collaborative research between faculty and students.

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Dr. Kelly McConnaughay says there is significant value in engaging students in scholarly research.

“First, it extends student learning beyond the classroom, and into the very heart of a discipline,” Dr. McConnaughay says. The student becomes an active participant in the development and application of knowledge and skills; a ‘doer’ and ‘problem solver.’

“Second, it engages students deeply in high-level learning” by having them evaluate their own understandings and those of scholars, as well as learning to communicate their results. Consequently, they become better students and active lifelong learners.

“Third, students engaged in undergraduate research and creative endeavors have higher graduation rates, higher matriculation rates into post-baccalaureate degree programs, higher job placement rates, and higher satisfaction in their collegiate and post-collegiate pursuits,” she says.

Music to his ears

Jared Bartman’s idea for a recording label/music promotions company developed in an English Senior Project Class through the encouragement of Dr. Robert Prescott, faculty mentor and Department of English chair. After further development, Bartman’s research with teammates Max Kerr ’10 (advertising) and undergraduates Sean Cairns (interactive media) and Stephanie Meyer (music performance) won a $7,500 award to get their business started at the 2010 Project Springboard Business Plan Competition. They’ve incorporated their business, are accepting clients, and are moving into an office complete with a recording studio.

“It’s important for the majority of English majors to demonstrate that their English skills are transferable to other types of productive work,” Dr. Prescott says. “That research experience becomes vitally important in how they pursue their careers after graduation.”

Faculty/student research at Bradley is “truly collaborative,” Dr. Prescott says.

“With Jared, my role was to encourage him to do Project Springboard. I was a coordinator, a reader, an editor, and an encourager, but the actual product was conducted by Jared and his team. I critiqued them, and I reached out to the Foster College of Business Administration and sought friends to help critique.”

Faculty and staff associated with Foster College’s Robert and Carolyn Turner Center for Entrepreneurship have played a vital role in many of Dr. Prescott’s students’ research. “English majors are creative, and they understand people, but that doesn’t mean they know how to speak the language of business. One of the things I treasure most about Bradley is that I’ve never encountered a separation between colleges. The business college is enthusiastic about sharing their expertise with any interested students on campus.”

Bartman, who double majored in English and music, described the business mentoring he received as “a concentrated crash course in entrepreneurship that related directly to everything I was doing in English. Had I not done this research project with Dr. Prescott, I think I would be ignorant of the many sides of the business world and things that I really need to know in starting this business.”

Working in guided research gave his project “structure and direction,” Bartman says. “Faculty are always willing and eager to help.”

Navigating the world of research, proposals, and electrical and computer engineering

Daniel Monroe, an electrical and computer engineering graduate, says the INS prototype project he and Luke Pfister worked on “was done from the ground up to simulate a professional project. We had to write proposals for the project’s approval, request funds, purchase equipment, develop the goals of the project, and finally put everything together to get it working.”

“This project could be used in a wide variety of applications, from personal navigation to cruise missile guidance,” Pfister says.

Bradley students used the research shown above to develop new electrical and computer engineering innovations, including algorithms that were published at a national conference.

Monroe also worked on other research projects at Bradley, developing a new algorithm for noise suppression in ultrasonic nondestructive evaluation, and speaking about it at the 20th Argonne Undergraduate Symposium. He also worked on biomedical and signal processing-related projects for Peoria Robotics. Currently, Monroe is a junior engineer with Automotive Robotics International, a company that provides contract employment for companies such as Caterpillar Inc.

“The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty was wonderful to work with,” Monroe says. “The department is small, so my classmates and I were very close with our instructors. Because of the close relationships, they helped us focus on our strengths and helped us select projects that were better suited to each of us.

“Conducting research as an undergrad really boosted my work experience and my confidence. By the time I graduated, I had two IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) conference papers to my name and had given several talks on my work. It made getting a job easier, and I think it will make it easier to get into a good graduate school.”

Participating in the research also benefited Pfister. “It strengthened my ability to analyze a complex problem, create and implement a solution, and finally to present our solution in both technical papers and presentations.”

Researching rodents

Matthew Westbrook studied nocturnal rodents at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory as a research assistant with Bradley faculty mentor and biology professor Dr. Barbara Frase. It was his most involved project, but not his first. He studied mercury resistance in Citrobacter species as a sophomore with Dr. Keith Johnson. Citrobacter species is a bacteria found in feral brook trout.

Matthew Westbrook holds a woodrat while studying its nocturnal habits at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

Dr. Frase sees herself as a mentor and collaborator with the students. “My role is source person, motivator, chastiser, role model, questioner, and back-patter.”

Westbrook, a conservation and land management intern with the Chicago Botanic Garden, says many undergraduates earn course credit as they conduct research projects. “This opportunity would be rare to find at a larger university whose primary focus would likely be on graduate students.”

 Originally unsure of his future career, Westbrook says: “After working with Dr. Frase, I had little doubt regarding my desire to pursue a career in conservation.

“Undergraduate research has proven itself to be an unparalleled way to learn. It improved my critical thinking skills drastically.” He believes his research experience helped him land his internship. He says applying scientific principles learned in the classroom “bridges the gap to the ‘real world’ in a way that is meaningful and enduring to students.”

Dr. Frase says another benefit comes when “students actually figure something out that
no one has ever looked at before; that’s amazing for an undergrad.” Indeed, the faculty are quick to point out the tangible and intangible rewards of undergraduate research.

“When you enter into a genuine year-long or two-year-long research mentoring relationship with a student, that student is going to be a part of your life and you’re going to be a part of that student’s life,” Dr. Prescott says. “It’s such a great and an often unspoken reward of being a professor.”