Undergraduate Research Experience

Undergraduate research experiences are a powerful way to emphasize the importance of learning through discovery. Faculty members at FHSU, known for hands-on learning, have involved students in research and other scholarly endeavors for many years, particularly in the physical and social sciences. In 2009, the Research Environment Committee (now called the Scholarly Environment Committee) recognized the need to improve both the quantity and quality of student participation in faculty-led research. 

In response to this need, the Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) program was established at FHSU. The program’s pilot year began in fall 2010. The URE serves the campus community by helping to identify the needs of undergraduate researchers and their mentors and by determining what resources are needed to improve the infrastructure that supports undergraduate research. The URE also promotes undergraduate research.

Undergraduate research is not just for the “smart kids.” Even students with a less-than-impressive academic record can benefit from URE. Studies suggest that engaging students in research activities within the first or second year of college improves both retention and academic performance. Approximately 600 colleges and universities across the country have formal undergraduate research programs designed to enhance teaching and learning.

Undergraduates from every discipline benefit. Leslie Paige, director of URE, was impressed when she learned about the amount of research being conducted in departments across campus. “Although FHSU faculty and students have a long history of collaboration on research, scholarly, and creative projects,” she says, “we never realized how much was taking place until we started asking faculty. For some disciplines, research is seamlessly integrated into teaching and learning. Other disciplines are still exploring ways to engage students in scholarly endeavors.” 

When faculty and staff members were asked to report their research projects that involved undergraduates, it was revealed that a surprising number of undergraduate research projects were happening all over campus, with approximately 350 students participating in undergraduate research during the 2010-2011 academic year! With so many projects being conducted, the Undergraduate Research Experience is becoming a crucial resource at FHSU.

Students benefit in many ways from their involvement in assisting with or conducting research, even early in their college experience. Some benefits seem fairly obvious, such as helping students gain technical skills within their discipline. 

Elementary Education major Lacey Ward stated, “I have learned better ways to pick out information that is needed and relevant.”  

Maddie Mall had also done education research.  She says, “I have greatly improved my research and writing skills.  I also have learned how to work as [part of] a research team and use resources available to me.”

Students who have participated in research are also more likely to be accepted into graduate schools. Having research experience also makes them more competitive when it comes to searching for employment. 

Melanie Mabrey of the psychology department has received career advice from her faculty mentors. “We have many goals in our research lab that vary from short-term things, such as submissions to conferences and creating surveys, to long-term goals, such as the mentors discussing career planning and progression that we have as students.”

In addition to serving students, the Undergraduate Research Experience seeks to serve faculty members. Faculty members want to learn more about strategies for mentoring students, evaluating student projects, and integrating research into curricula. A special challenge for faculty is developing and evaluating strategies that are appropriate for involving virtual students in undergraduate research.  Resources that can help to answer questions and address the concerns of those who mentor undergraduate researchers are under development.

Faculty members are in a unique position to nurture student success and further progress within their fields of research. “I was thoroughly impressed by the Fort Hays State University biology faculty,” says Keri Caudle, who conducted biological research this semester. “I have never met more devoted people that are excited about their work and their students. The personal one-on-one mentorship is incredible. Most undergraduates get lost in the crowd when starting college, but the professors at FHSU take time to get to know you and make sure you get the most out of your education.”

Benefits for undergraduate research extend to FHSU as an institution as well. Undergraduate research programs are attractive to motivated students and talented faculty. A successful and productive undergraduate research program can enhance the university's reputation, result in more external recognition, and increase the potential for external grant funding. Studies show that alumni with undergraduate research experience report significantly greater satisfaction and personal and cognitive growth than those without research experience. Alumni with positive perceptions of their undergraduate learning may be more willing to be involved in supporting the university.

The URE funds small grants for faculty projects that are designed to engage undergraduate students.  In 2011, fourteen projects were funded to support over 80 undergraduate student researchers. Student funding for research supplies and travel to professional conferences to present findings and to collect data is still needed, and will help to extend undergraduate research. Additional programs that are interdisciplinary and that would support student research during the summer are also being proposed. 

Increased attention is being paid to undergraduate research at FHSU. Fall 2011 was the first annual Undergraduate Research Experience Fair, which provided a venue for departments to showcase undergraduate research projects and opportunities. With support from the Provost's office, the URE will be bringing Dr. Jill Singer to campus this spring. Dr. Singer is the director of undergraduate research at Buffalo State College, is a past president of the Council of Undergraduate Research, and is a national expert on undergraduate research.

The URE’s work goes on, benefiting students, faculty, and the university. Megan Hake, undergraduate researcher in elementary education, sums up what the URE can do in the lives of students.  “Through the undergraduate research experience, I’ve learned that you can make an impact if you’re willing to put in the time to discover the change. It’s been a wonderful experience so far, and I’m looking forward to continuing along this course. “

For more information regarding the Undergraduate Research Experience at Fort Hays State University, please contact Leslie Paige '81, '87 at lpaige@fhsu.edu.