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Research And Relationship

Feb. 28, 2008


By Lane Murphy

Great teaching has always been a hallmark of a Baylor education. When classes are taught by professors who are passionate about their field and genuinely interested in the lives of their students, something truly transformative takes place, impacting what students learn, how they learn and quite possibly how they approach learning for the rest of their lives. At Baylor, such teaching has always included challenging students with opportunities to dig in and discover new knowledge first-hand by

participating with professors in research. Today, thanks to recent University initiatives and increased funding programs, a growing number of undergraduate students are enjoying the benefits of research early on in their college careers.

"What we have at Baylor is truly unique," says Dr. Truell Hyde, MS '80, PhD '88, vice provost for research. "The scope of undergraduate involvement we have across disciplines is amazing. Chemistry and biology, geology, math, classics, history, music--these are just a few of the departments where undergraduate research has long been encouraged."

Hyde quips that these students aren't just fetching coffee or serving as gophers for grad students, like you might find at other research universities. "These are real, functioning research environments where students are involved in significant research roles, some as early as their freshmen year, ending up with publishable work. We have been able to recruit some great students because of these early opportunities."

A new way to learn

Attracting great students and providing them with the best possible undergraduate experience is at the core of a number of new programs designed to give students an early introduction to unique academic and scholarly activities.

Residential communities like the North Village and Brooks Village contain Living-Learning Centers, which bring together students of similar interests living in close proximity to professors to foster academic conversations and deeper relationships beyond the classroom. The living and learning center model at Baylor is a specialized residential program that has a direct connection with a specific academic program. A strong partnership is formed between an academic program and Campus Living and Learning in an effort to create a seamless learning experience for residential students.

Last fall, the University launched three Engaged Learning Groups (ELGs) designed to encourage focused interdisciplinary study of specific topics over four semesters in a socially nurturing learning and research environment. Also residential in nature, the ELGs each contain 49 incoming freshmen of various majors and a team of three professors from different academic departments.

"ELGs allow students to study topics that couldn't be fully explored in a one-semester class," says Tiffany Hogue, BA '95, assistant provost at Baylor who spearheaded the program. "They allow for increased faculty-student interaction and emphasize undergraduate research. The learning that takes place and the relationships that are created between students and faculty are extremely beneficial."

Most recently, the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activities (URSA) network was initiated to encourage undergraduate students to get involved in research and to assist students in identifying faculty who might match their interests. In addition to gaining valuable experience in honing critical thinking and problem solving skills through lab experience and long-term participation in research, participating students get the chance to work with and learn alongside their peers, graduate students and professors. Students also have the opportunity to win URSA writing awards and present their research at URSA Scholar's Day.

"The special relationship between student and teacher has long been a hallmark of a Baylor education," says Baylor President John M. Lilley. "We are now enriching that experience by engaging in meaningful ways undergraduates in the research activities of our faculty."

Such participation in research activities can have a significant impact on a student's approach to learning, says Dr. Susan Bratton, chair of Environmental Science and a member of the Undergraduate Research Advisory Council. Bratton routinely assists undergraduates who want to pursue research opportunities, and says undergraduate research raises the degree of challenge for students and can be more intellectually stimulating for all students, not just those interested in pursuing advanced or professional degrees.

"Certainly for the caliber of students Baylor is recruiting, routine textbook classes are not the end of the line," Bratton says. "We are providing opportunities like these for students to use their critical thinking skills, in very concrete ways, and to develop their imagination and creativity. Research is excellent for developing presentation and writing skills for all purposes. With the quality of undergraduates we're getting, we have a very substantial percentage of students who can benefit from the challenges involved."

The challenge of constructing a thesis is what Holly Young, BA '07, found to be one of the most fulfilling aspects of her research experience as an undergrad.

"The process of thinking over a long period of time (two years) about a single problem is really different from anything you would normally do as an undergraduate," Young says. "It gives more time for your thinking to grow and become more sophisticated. And the process of writing a longer piece, of making sense and extending an argument over a longer span, is a difficult and different task. I learned a lot just from struggling through it at Baylor and I'll be able to apply those skills throughout my graduate career."

Young, now pursuing a Ph.D. in American history at the University of Delaware, says the skills she gained through her research at Baylor gave her the confidence to forego a Masters degree and apply directly to doctoral programs, three of which offered her funding.

Inspiring students

Young was introduced to the idea of research through her involvement in the William Carey Crane Scholars program, which brings together faculty and students from departments across the University. Young was drawn to the concept of how Christian faith and scholarship can be mutually beneficial. Her interest was further piqued by interaction with one of her professors, Dr. Thomas Kidd, associate professor of history.

"I caught the excitement and the energy of the Academy from Dr. Kidd and other professors involved in the Crane Scholars program," Young says. "Their vision really excited me, and I started to consider an academic career for the first time."

Inspired by two courses on American religious history with Kidd, Young had an easy time choosing a thesis topic and an advisor. "The subject matter really interested me, and Dr. Kidd was eager to help me with my grad school plans. He seemed the logical choice for my thesis advisor."

Even students with no plans for postgraduate studies can benefit from professors who are actively pursuing research. Baylor is full of professors like Kidd who are motivated and excited about being actively involved in their fields. As they take that enthusiasm into the classroom, it results in more motivated and engaged students.

"I believe that while excellent teaching is not determined by research activity alone, for me personally, my most passionate teaching happens in areas where I have actively owned the material through original research," says Kidd. "Teaching the Great Awakening of the 18th century is personally exciting because I can tell the students what I have found and written about through my own research."

Kidd came to Baylor from Notre Dame in 2002, drawn by the idea of an ambitious research university committed to biblical principles. Since arriving here, he has been honored for both his research (numerous grants, fellowships and stipends, including a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship) and his teaching (voted an outstanding professor by the Graduate Student Association in 2006 and faculty member of the year in 2004-2005 by Student Government).

"An undergraduate's experience is strengthened by the opportunity to learn from professors who have personally pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge and expertise in their fields. At Baylor, that means learning from the professors themselves. At other universities, the research professors often do not teach undergraduate classes. Here, professors can pursue top-flight research while remaining involved in the undergraduate classroom," says Kidd.

Having research professors in the classroom and as mentors can prove invaluable, says Young. "My research experience helped me form a good working relationship with a professor who would guide me through my research and in the graduate school application process as well. Meetings [with Dr. Kidd] about my thesis and research would often turn into advice about which schools to apply to, and how to identify programs and professors that would best match my own academic goals."

Practical Experience

Providing students with practical experiences from the lab within the classroom setting is another benefit of having professors who are actively pursuing research in addition to regular teaching activities. "In every one of my classes, we spend our time finding real solutions to real world problems," says Dr. Pedro Reyes, assistant professor of operations management and expert in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). "My goal is that students come away with a working knowledge of problem-solving methods that can be easily applied and adapted in the business world." Reyes is one of many Baylor professors who give opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in research-related projects as part of their regular classroom experience.

Senior real estate and operations management major Casey Camp has taken several courses with Reyes and appreciates the stimulating and relevant coursework he provides while giving personal attention to students.

"Dr. Reyes is very close with his students. He truly cares and wants to form a relationship with each student that will last longer than just the five months he has them in class," says Camp.

Those relationships often lead to students pursuing more challenging research opportunities through independent study opportunities that grow out of the coursework covered in the classroom.

Chris Zane, BBA '07, took full advantage of the opportunity to work with Reyes. Zane's independent study course allowed him to pursue something more stimulating than remaining exclusively in a classroom setting. Zane worked on a project at Waco Regional Airport utilizing RFID technology to make baggage scanning and tracking more efficient. "Dr. Reyes encourages independent, analytical thought. He will help focus your research processes, but will not provide easy answers," Zane says.

Though he was an undergraduate, Zane's project was designed to follow the same strict requirements set by the graduate school: "to provide a comprehensive literature review, design an experiment which can repudiate a null hypothesis, analyze the results utilizing inferential statistics, and discuss the results."

Zane submitted his work to Business Horizons, a nationally recognized journal published by Indiana University, for publication consideration. Now pursuing his MBA at Baylor, Zane continues to do RFID research with Reyes, and was even able to present his findings at the Third Annual RFID Symposium, hosted by Baylor in September, alongside other prominent researchers in the fiels of RFID research.

Expanding Opportunities

"Exposing our students to research opportunities uniquely prepares them for new challenges they may face as they continue their education or move into their chosen profession," says Lilley. "Our emphasis on the research experience at the undergraduate level helps us fulfill our mission to educate the next generation of leaders to impact the world."

Hyde agrees and points to Baylor's recent designation as a research university with "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation as a positive indicator of Baylor's progress. "Universities are supposed to be places where new knowledge is developed and passed on and taught," says Hyde. "What better way to teach students than to include them in the discovery that new knowledge?"

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