Reimagining Research

(Photo by Duane Zehr)

Matt Hawkins
September 6, 2017

Bradley biology and psychology faculty will spend the next four years exploring ways to expand research opportunities to all undergraduate students. They will be collaborating with faculty at 11 other universities to test ideas for the Council on Undergraduate Research’s National Collegiate Transformations Project.

CUR, which is a professional society for undergraduate research institutions, received a National Science Foundation grant to develop course curricula focused on hands-on learning. CUR chose natural and social science-related departments at 12 universities nationwide for the project. Faculty will work together under the guidance of CUR experts to rethink course content delivery.

If successful, the model could be incorporated into all university courses.

“Google is here. Wikipedia is here. Now what? A college education needs to go beyond just memorizing facts and accessing information. We need to help students build the capacity to pursue and solve critical, complex problems,” said Dr. Kelly McConnaughay, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It’s exciting to work with like-minded colleagues to ideate new curricular structures designed to develop these skills. We will be immersed in a virtual playground of ideas.”

The Transformations Project seeks a comprehensive shift in undergraduates’ academic experiences. While universities may offer research opportunities to some students, CUR wants to embed research into coursework.

“This approach would enable all students to participate in meaningful projects throughout their undergraduate career,” said Dr. Sherri Morris, chair of the biology department.

Higher education’s traditional fact-based classroom model could change through CUR’s experiment. While many traditional courses emphasize memorization of information, the new model would focus on critical thinking and lifelong learning skills. Instead of experiential learning and application being limited to a few courses, these components would become the DNA of almost every course on campus.

“A 21st Century education requires we relentlessly give students engaged experiential learning opportunities,” said psychology department chair Dr. Tim Koeltzow. “We spend four years testing students for their test-taking ability, but I want to develop doctors and other professionals who are critical thinkers who understand why they’re doing things. The challenge is to make sure all students can be involved in these transformative projects.”

Though an inquiry-based education would be a change, it would fit into Bradley’s academic strengths. With a 12:1 student-faculty ratio and courses often smaller in departmental major courses, students are encouraged to develop close relationships with their faculty. In turn, faculty are encouraged to engage students in research and creative projects.

Most majors’ senior capstones include research or professional projects, with smaller experiences built into upper-level courses. Additionally, many departments offer research groups, independent studies, scholarships, grants and community engagement outside normal classroom hours. Students from all disciplines present their work at Bradley’s annual juried Student Scholarship Expo, and many take their projects to regional or national conferences.

The Transformations Project will allow students to be more prepared for these experiences and allow them deeper engagements earlier in their academic careers.

Bradley’s Transformations Project team was developed as a collaborative effort by the biology and psychology department chairs, as well as psychology professor Dr. Anthony Hermann and psychology professor Dr. Erich Stabenau. The implementation team is led by College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Office of the Dean and faculty from the biology and psychology departments.

“We have excellent faculty dedicated to students and research, but there is only so much they can do with existing educational structures,” Koeltzow said. “It’s important we have the support of the president, provost and dean because this study could be disruptive to the way we’ve thought about classroom experiences.”