By Heather Bowser
HARRISONBURG These days, James Madison University's undergraduate research projects are ranked up there with the big boys even though JMU isn't a "publish-heavy" school.
Reprinted, with permission, from the August 19, 2006, Harrisonburg Daily News-Record. To see the original story, click here.
For the first time, the U.S. News & World Report ranked JMU among the top 35 "programs to look for" for undergraduate research.
The annual survey, "America's Best College Guide," which hit newsstands on Friday, compares colleges in a variety of ways, such as overall value, academics, business programs and – in this case – "undergraduate research/creative projects."
Other universities to make the list include "publish-heavy" old-timers like Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Although JMU regularly scores high marks compared with "non-national" universities, this is one of the first times it's landed in the top rankings with national schools.
Top Notch Professors
Making the undergraduate research A-list, JMU officials say, is philosophical in nature.
Put simply, JMU professors ditch the "publish-or-perish" attitude common at many big time research schools and focus more on teaching undergraduates to do research. The process nets fewer publications, but better aligns with the university's mission.
"We delight in publications and new knowledge, but it's not the focus of the school," said David Brakke, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. "For us, research is a part of our educational process. It's a very powerful educational tool to provide these experiences for our students."
To teach undergrads to research at the top tier of schools, Brakke says JMU recruits and retains faculty who are just as interested in mentoring students and writing grants as they are in performing the research themselves.
In the college of science and math, for example, faculty recently cashed in on five major research grants to purchase top-notch equipment for undergraduates, including a $500,000 scanning electron microscope.
Top Notch Students
Self-motivated students are also key to making the top grade, officials say.
Students have to be good enough to handle the projects faculty members give them, said A. Jerry Benson, dean of the College of Integrated Science and Technology.
Recently, the ROTC faculty initiated a partnership with the U.S. Army to conduct preliminary research to help cure infectious diseases. Other recent undergrad projects include those on biodiesel fuels, wind energy and the fish kills in the Shenandoah River.
"We have to have a high caliber student for them to trust us with that kind of research," Benson said.
About a third of JMU undergrads pursue graduate school, while another third enter programs like medical school, law school and dental school. Twenty-six students were co-authors of publications and 129 were authors or co-authors of presented research papers in JMU's psychology department alone.
"Here, they really learn how to think for themselves," said Benson.
Published September 2006