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Undergraduate Research at Madison College and James Madison University: History and Continuing Development

Background and Development of the University

David Brakke talks with a student.
David Brakke talks with a student.

The Virginia General Assembly established the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Harrisonburg in 1908. In 1914, the name was changed to the State Normal School for Women at Harrisonburg. Authorization to award bachelor's degrees was granted in 1916. During this initial period of development, the campus plan was established and six buildings were constructed. The campus began as a two-year teacher’s college for women, with an enrollment of 209 students and a faculty of 15. Its first 20 graduates received diplomas in 1911.

The institution became the State Teachers College at Harrisonburg in 1924 and continued under that name until 1938, when it was named Madison College in honor of the fourth president of the United States. In 1946, following the return of veterans qualifying for the GI Bill, men first enrolled as regular day students. The institution was authorized to grant master's degrees in 1954. In 1966, by action of the Virginia General Assembly, the university became a coeducational institution. In 1967-68, there were 2,999 students. In 1977, the university achieved its current name and had grown to 7,926 students, of which 46 percent were male. The university has continued to grow and enhance its reputation. By 1990, enrollment reached 11,011. Over the past 15 years, it has been named the number one public comprehensive university in the south by U.S. News & World Report. Currently, in the university’s centennial year, total enrollment is 16,970, of which approximately 1,000 are graduate students. In 2006-07, 3,475 undergraduate and 559 graduate degrees were conferred. The entering freshman class size is approximately 3,960 students drawn from over 19,300 applications primarily from Virginia, the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. The current percentage of in-state students is 70 percent and females comprise 60 percent of the undergraduate student population. One year retention is 90.8 percent and the three-year retention rate is 84.3 percent. Only a handful of campuses have a similar composition, number of applications and retention rates.

Evolution and definition of research

Evidence of the development of undergraduate research comes in at least two forms — honors theses and original research projects conducted under the supervision of faculty in academic departments. The description of honors theses is listed below. Separately, individual departments or programs have various requirements in their curriculum, which may include senior projects based on required internships, research experiences and capstone experiences that integrate service-learning and original research (see Brakke 2004 for definitions of research vs. research experiences or projects). In addition, departments may embed research within courses. Further, various approaches are used to prepare students for research (see Brakke 2005), however as is typical of most curricula on other campuses, there are few programs that take a developmental approach that consider cognitive, maturational, skills and other factors. In some cases departments will offer discrete courses, a typical so-called research methods course. Other approaches are more complex and inter-connected, including a series of experiences that might begin with investigative laboratory experiences, lead to more integrated project-based laboratories and build toward the preparation of a student for original research.

Even in departments that have long been involved in and encourage undergraduate research, it may not be required of all of the students in a major. These cases are related to a number of factors, including the very practical limits in offering research experiences to all students, particularly departments that have large numbers of majors (see Brakke and Nelson 2003), the level of preparedness of students for research, their motivation and their work ethic.

Honors Theses

The Honors Program of the university dates its inception with the completion of the first thesis. Students graduating from the Honors Program are required to complete a senior project and submit a thesis. Departmental honors theses began in 1962, with the first thesis being completed in Sociology.

Through 2007, 1,676 undergraduate theses were completed across most of the programs of the university. As was the case with the development of many honors programs across the country, it emanated from the arts and sciences, but principally from the humanities and the arts. For example, 188 honors theses have been written in English since 1963 and 158 in History since 1964. Psychology was also an early participant (1964), with 241 completed theses through 2007. Because of emerging programs, mergers and other changes in structure over time, as well as differences in sizes of majors, it is very difficult to ascribe any significance to the total numbers of theses completed. However, English, history and psychology have tended to have at least one honors thesis every year and several per year recently. Participation from political science and philosophy began in the mid- to late-1970’s, followed by economics (1982), communication (1986), computer science (1994), media arts and design (1995) and integrated science and technology (1997). Participation from business disciplines has been ongoing since 1966, but with a relatively small number of theses completed given the size of the undergraduate majors in business, an area where other experiences such as internships are more common and more highly valued. Some theses have also been completed in education and the health professions.

For the sciences and mathematics, the first thesis was completed in 1967 in chemistry, 1971 in physics, 1972 in geology, 1976 in biology and 1997 in mathematics and statistics. The first honors thesis was written by Dr. Carolyn Abitbol, a pediatric nephrologist at the University of Miami Medical School, who traces her career back to that thesis. Across the sciences and mathematics, a total of 297 honors theses have been completed through 2007.

Over the past 20 years completion of an honors thesis has been a requirement for honors recognition at graduation. A separate category exists in the Honors Program for students who enter the program as junior and whose only connection with the program is the honors thesis. Students entering the Honors Program as freshmen or sophomores have additional requirements and receive special recognition at graduation. Some students who enter the program as freshmen or sophomores produce research that would meet requirements for the Honors thesis, but they have not completed the remainder of program requirements and therefore are not recognized as having completed an honors thesis. This is especially true for students in the sciences who find it difficult to finish all requirements, especially if they are seeking to finish a minor or second major. They may start in the Honors Program, but not finish. Nonetheless, many of these students will conduct research with a faculty mentor (and many students not in the Honors Program will conduct research — see below). The number of students currently completing all requirements of the Honors Program and completing an honors thesis ranges between 75 and 90 per year across all programs.

Theses must comply with certain formats and achieve a standard for acceptance, which is outlined in an Honors Program Project Handbook, which was first published in 1991. While no formal definition of research has been developed by the Honors Program, the project handbook emphasizes the commitment to genuine scholarship. It discusses the “student’s own critical and creative thought,” “creative work”and the application of “research skills appropriate to their discipline.” The guidelines also describe a significant expenditure of time and resources for a project to be completed over a three-semester sequence and carrying six hours of undergraduate credit. Each student completes a project under the guidance of a faculty adviser, with two additional faculty members serving as readers to complete the student’s project advisory committee.

Individual departments have determined their standards for acceptance of honors theses and judge whether theses will be recommended for approval. Not all theses submitted to departments are recommended for approval to the Honors Program. Theses submitted are then reviewed and through a process of nomination by departments and then careful screening by a committee, two are selected to receive awards sponsored by Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Beta Kappa members. Many of the recent awards for honors theses were for projects completed in the sciences and mathematics.

Undergraduate Research and Departmental Colloquia

While the development of an Honors Program resulted in theses being completed in a wide range of disciplines over time, students who were not in the Honors Program also conducted research. Some research efforts began within departments by a group of colleagues or began by a single individual. From Madison College’s focus almost exclusively on teaching by faculty, a blend of teaching and research began to emerge, in which faculty scholarship could be tied to undergraduate research. In the sciences, these efforts began 30-35 years ago, but not synchronously across departments.

The first departmental colloquium in the sciences was held in 1976 in the chemistry department. The symposium initially involved a relatively small number of students, mostly seniors, who had conducted research during the academic year. Over time, students became more involved in research during the summer as well as the academic year as a result of external funding to faculty. Other students took advantage of research opportunities elsewhere and juniors and sophomores became more common participants in the department’s student research symposium. The program grew to a two-day event, including a keynote talk delivered by a former student presenter. The 30th annual colloquium in 2005 featured two alumni, one who is chair of the department of chemistry at the College of William and Mary and the other who returned to James Madison as a faculty member and was responsible for beginning the first NSF-REU program at the university in 1989. It is worth noting that the faculty members leading the efforts in developing undergraduate research in chemistry had themselves participated in research projects as undergraduates.

The first student research symposium in biology was held in 1992. Geology also began a student research symposium the same year. The first symposium in physics occurred in 1999. The smaller symposia in physics and geology involve oral presentations on a single day. The biosymposium extends over a two-day period and is modeled after a scientific meeting, with oral presentations and poster sessions. It also features an alumnus as a keynote speaker. In the 2004 biosymposium, 99 students were authors and 29 faculty were mentors, including three from outside the department. Beginning in 2008, the biosymposium will also include presentations and posters by students in the molecular biology REU, which also includes faculty and students at Bridgewater College and Eastern Mennonite University. Increasingly, the biosymposium includes presentations and posters that have been accomplished in collaboration with faculty in other departments.

Evidence for the expansion of undergraduate research also comes from examining the number of students who enrolled in research credits (e.g. bio 497) or honors in a department (e.g. honors in biology). In biology, 31 students signed up for such credits in 1992-93, from 1995 to 1998 the number ranged from 63 to 94 and from 1999 to 2007 the numbers have ranged from 129 to 183. Of the total numbers, 30 to 40 of the students were signed up for honors credits. In chemistry, the numbers of students enrolled in research credits has fluctuated from year to year and ranged from 16 to 46. Geology required a research experience beginning in 1994, with the number of students enrolled varying from 16 to 40. In mathematics and statistics, guided inquiry in small independent study sections has been common over time, but more recently increasing numbers of students have enrolled in research credits. In physics, a small number of students were enrolled in research credits in the 1990’s, but a significant increase began to occur in 2000 leading to 21 physics majors enrolled in research credits in 2007. In all cases, enrollments in courses awarding research credits has increased over time.

Summer Research Programs

NSF–REU and Summer Research Programs

Within the sciences, students have been involved in summer research experiences over an extended period of time. An organized summer program began in 1990 in the department of chemistry, which received funding from the National Science Foundation for a REU program. From 1990-95, 81 students participated, with 57 percent of those funded by the NSF coming from JMU and 70 percent were female. From 1998 to 2004, 97 additional students were supported directly by REU and 107 from other grants. Of these, 78 percent were female, 64 percent were planning on going to graduate school directly and 11 percent to medical schools. Nine percent of the students were minorities and 20 percent were hearing-impaired (see Seal and Macdonald 2002 and C&E News.)

In 2000, a REU was added in materials science. This program has involved faculty from five different departments. REU programs in mathematics and biology began the following year along with a NIH Bridges to the Baccalaureate program and a NSF undergraduate mentoring in environmental biology program. Additional support for summer research students has been received by research projects funded by NASA, the NSF, the NIH, Research Corporation and the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund. In 2004, 45 faculty members from seven departments participated in the four REU and two additional programs, mentoring approximately 100 undergraduate student researchers. These efforts to develop a summer research community across the sciences and mathematics have been described in Brakke et al. (2003). For perspective, across all primarily undergraduate institutions classed by the NSF, only Hope College, James Madison and Wellesley have more than two REU programs. A more recent award from the NSF is supporting faculty and students from biology and mathematics to collaborate in joint projects.

In 2001, JMU started a pilot international REU program in sub-Sahara Africa with a cohort of eight students over two years. This program was the first of its kind that was hosted by a PUI. Three years later, the program was fully funded and it is currently one of two REU programs in this region with rich biodiversity. In the past six years, 34 students have spent the summer working on carefully selected projects at the University of Cape Coast (UCC) in Ghana through the JMU-UCC REU program. The program was jointly funded by the Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE) and the directorate of biology at the National Science Foundation through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. After orientation at JMU, students traveled as a group to Ghana. During the six-week stay in Ghana, they were mentored by scientists from UCC. The program focused on various approaches to research in tropical biology, especially ecology, biodiversity, conservation biology, bio-prospecting and environmental science; experiences they could not obtain in the United States. Participants designed experiments in collaboration with their mentors, collected and analyzed their data, and presented their results at the end of the program in Ghana and at regional and national meetings upon their return to the U.S.

Across the REU programs, the majority of students from JMU and other universities are rising juniors, while some rising sophomores have also participated. Involving students early and often in research experiences has provided a range of opportunities, especially to the better students. Typically, a student might be at JMU for one summer following their sophomore year, but then be at another university or government research laboratory, e.g. Oak Ridge National Lab or the Naval Research Lab, the following summer. For example, during the summer of 2004, nine chemistry students were part of REU or summer research programs at other locations. These students are expected to make a presentation on their work during the fall semester as part of departmental seminar series.

Additional summer research programs have been associated with students from physics participating in major projects at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the Jefferson Laboratory in Virginia and CERN in Switzerland. In these programs, some off-site mentoring has been required.

Student Presentations at Professional Meetings

Participation in National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR)

Beginning in 1989, the university began sending students to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. For NCUR’s third national conference, 14 James Madison University students attended. Students from the university have participated each year since that conference, generally 13-16 students in years when the meeting has been held at locations beyond a one-day driving distance and 19-29 students at meetings held in locations closer to Harrisonburg. Given the proximity of Lexington, Va. to JMU, 46 students made presentations at NCUR in April 2005. Support for participation of approximately 15 students per year is determined by application to a faculty committee, with additional students participating if supported by grant funds. Over the period from 1989 to 2007, the greatest representation of students has been from the sciences, history and psychology, with some involvement from other fields and lesser participation from the humanities compared with their representation in completing of honors theses.

Student Presentations at National or Regional Meetings and Publications

Students are encouraged to make presentations at regional and national meetings of professional societies and regional conferences on undergraduate research. The exact date of the first presentation by a JMU student at a national meeting is unknown, however they have been making presentations over an extended period of at least 20 years. The number of presentations has increased steadily and has expanded with additional research funding. Currently, students make presentations annually at the Materials Research Society, American Chemical Society regional and national meetings, Mathematics Association of America/American Mathematical Society, the Geological Society of America and a number of societies in the biological sciences.

Similar to presentations, the number of publications involving undergraduate student authors has a relatively long history. These publications are not tied to any particular program, although some might emanate from a REU. More often they are examples of work done over an extended period of one or more academic years and a summer or a summer with research ongoing the following academic year.

Additional evidence of undergraduate research comes from applications of students for grants. These may be grants-in-aid of research from Sigma Xi or many other forms of support from pharmaceutical companies, foundations and other agencies. Participation in various competitions has also occurred. For example, for several years teams of students have entered the International Mathematical Modeling Competition (COMAP). Most recently, six teams of four students each worked with faculty mentors from physics and mathematics/statistics.

Since 2006, the Geology Field Camp has operated in Ireland. The camp involves field mapping but also work in environmental science. Students work collaboratively and in the latter part of the course are involved in original research.

The Role of Faculty in Undergraduate Research

Faculty members are unquestionably the key to successful undergraduate research programs. In some cases, departmental programs developed from collective vision, whereas in other cases they originated from a single faculty member or a small group within a department. While not all students participate in research, undergraduate research is evident in all departments across the sciences and mathematics.

Careful faculty hiring is critical to the support and maintenance of an undergraduate research program. James Madison has attempted to hire faculty that are teacher-scholars interested in working with undergraduate students in research. It is a model for hiring. Departments also recognize the many reasons why undergraduate research is being done and its benefits to student learning and development, to the faculty and their development as teachers, scholars and mentors and to their disciplines in producing original research.

The interest of faculty in working with undergraduate students and their leadership is evident from the roles several faculty play in professional societies on committees for undergraduate research. Several faculty and administrators have served or are serving as councilors for the Council for Undergraduate Research. Current or recent councilors have included three in the biology section (including the chair), two at-large, two chemistry and one physics.

Development of Undergraduate Research: Top-down or Bottom-up?

The development of undergraduate research at James Madison University was without question driven by faculty members who brought research into what had been a “teaching” college. This research did not supplant teaching; instead, it augmented student learning. The impetus for undergraduate research was two-fold: to help enhance student learning by doing science and mathematics and faculty member’s interest in conducting original research. The period of development has been long and the effort not always recognized or supported. In fact, institutional practices and policies have been impediments. Some examples are included below.

Perceptions of the role of research had to be changed. For some, even until relatively recently, “research” was equated with trying to become a research university. It is now much more commonly understood why undergraduate research is being done, how it benefits the students and how it is part of an experiential form of education. Given the growth of the institution and the hiring of faculty, especially in the past decade, departments have had the opportunity to build from the solid foundation of teaching and a liberal arts and sciences core similar to a small private college and perhaps meld the best of that experience with the best from a larger, research university. Undergraduate students remain the focus, and with a relative large faculty diverse opportunities in research can be provided.

Institutions can be obstacles. Moving from a much smaller college that operated mainly during an academic year to one in which faculty received grants and research was conducted throughout the year required many changes in administrative and other operations. For example, even simple things like paying a student in the summer or securing housing can become major issues even if a campus has a summer school program of teaching. Are students paid a stipend or are they given a scholarship, what library, recreation center and other privileges do they have, what rules apply for faculty compensation and any number of other issues must be resolved. Receiving answers like “we have never done that” or “we don’t think we can do that” from administrative offices, human resources or procurement, may require involvement of others in negotiating outcomes.

If research is to be of any scope or magnitude, it will require a research and sponsored programs infrastructure. Given its role in student learning and development, undergraduate research needs to be effectively counted and taken into consideration for faculty in their overall workload, although systems developed by other administrative units may be counting in their own, often inflexible, ways. Many of these issues had to be resolved over time, and some remain, with continual faculty initiative the driving force for change.

The pioneering efforts over many years grew particularly out of the chemistry department and developed somewhat later in biology. Long-standing efforts in securing external support, in gaining equipment and in sorting through the myriad of issues involved in operating a research program effort throughout the year cannot be understated. They made possible the development of a research-rich environment in the College of Science and Mathematics and have helped pave the way for other programs across the university. Faculty commitment and persistence was essential through times when undergraduate research was not always recognized or understood and impediments were many.

Despite considerable progress, the transformation is not complete. Total faculty load does not always recognize mentoring students, teaching loads should be lower, more support from scholarships or research stipends for students (and faculty) could be obtained and more grants could be written for equipment and support. While faculty members request support for students on grants, they might also request support for reassigned time. Departments can find ways to “count” mentoring as part of load. Preparing students for research or making the curriculum in a department “research-rich” is not fully solved. Some solid efforts are underway, but developing a systematic approach to preparing student for research remains in progress.

Assessment of outcomes

Table 1. Greatest gains reported by students participating in REU programs
  • Ready for more demanding research
  • Learned a topic in depth
  • Had opportunities for presentations
  • Learned laboratory techniques
  • Enhanced credentials
  • Developed a relationship with a mentor
  • Developed skills
  • Learned to persevere
  • Learned tolerance for obstacles
  • Understand current research

Assessment of outcomes has begun. However, it must extend well beyond counting numbers of students by various types. In conjunction with David Lopatto at Grinnell College, we have used survey instruments to examine the experiences of students in our summer research programs. As a result, we have information on student’s perceptions of their gains and changes in attitudes as a result of the experience and how they value the gains in shaping their development and career choices. Table 1 lists a wide range of outcomes from summer research experiences reported by students, including the development of analytical and communication skills and gains in confidence. Career choices and attitudes are also influenced. The experiences are thus rich and deep, with dimensions including attitudinal and outcomes going well beyond the completion of a research project, a single presentation or a publication. Table 2 identifies the gains students valued most from the experience. Similar gains and values of undergraduate research experiences are summarized in Russell et al. (2007) based on a survey of 4,500 undergraduates and 3,600 faculty members who participated in 2002 or 2003 in any of the NSF’s programs providing undergraduate research opportunities.

Table 2. Importance of benefits derived from research rated by REU students
  • Enhanced skills
  • Self-confidence
  • Laboratory techniques
  • Clarification of a career path
  • Developed relationship with a mentor
  • Learned tolerance for obstacles
  • Ability to analyze data
  • Enhanced credentials

Students are interested in mastering their field. Students benefit most when they are learning by example from a mentor. Not surprisingly, the availability of the mentor is extremely important to students in evaluating their experience. The role of undergraduate research in cognitive development is much more difficult to evaluate. A proposal to evaluate research experiences and problem-based learning courses has been submitted to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

We have surveyed faculty mentors who have participated in the programs to compare their valuation of the aspects of research experiences for students. Their responses are similar to those of students but not identical. We have not surveyed faculty to assess the impact of working with students in research on their work.

We have evidence from two programs, materials science and the national REU in mathematics funded through the Mathematical Association of America, that student classroom performance and grades improved following a research experience and mentoring by a faculty member. Particularly for challenging majors this impact could translate into greater persistence with a major. We also have seen “late-bloomers” catch fire as a result of the experience.

Some evaluations of research experiences have been done as part of academic program reviews for individual departments. The review process is extensive and incorporates assessment of learning outcomes in general education and in major programs (see: However, the process does not deal specifically with undergraduate research experiences.

While we have anecdotal evidence of impact on career paths of students, a systematic study remains to be done. For example, looking at the students who were involved in the first decade of honors theses, we see a number of Ph.D.s, physicians, etc. Since 1980, chemistry has produced over 85 students who have gone on to receive a doctorate., with many others in the pipeline, but what role did an undergraduate research experience play in their development? For some it was reportedly transformative. It should also be noted that it requires a rather long period of time for evaluation of long-term success. For example, 1994 graduate may complete a doctorate in 2001 and might finish a postdoctoral appointment in 2004. Even a decade does not allow a full picture of career trajectory.

Given the funding for the chemistry REU since 1990, with a gap of one year in the 1990’s, we can look at longer term data. Approximately half of the participants funded by the NSF were from James Madison and the others were from other campuses. In addition to the 14-18 students supported by the NSF, 12 (commonly in the 1990’s) to 28 (more recently) other students have been supported with grant funding for a total of 401 students. Since 1998, 12 percent of the students were minorities and 20 percent were hearing-impaired. Of the total number of students about 11 percent go on to careers in medical fields, 15 percent in some chemically-related field, 10 percent are high school teachers and the remainder entered graduate schools. From our assessment surveys, about half of those going to graduate school were either undecided or not interested in research careers prior to their REU experience.

The reputation of our undergraduate research programs is evident from articles written about our programs (see: and the highlight given by U.S. News & World Report in Fall 2006. In communicating to the campus, alumni and friends, nearly the entire Madison Magazine in Spring 2007 was devoted to articles on the research of undergraduates with faculty mentors ( Attention to our programs also has resulted in a Departmental Development Award to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry from Research Corporation and an invitation from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to submit an undergraduate science education proposal. A recent “bio-math” award from the NSF includes curricular work and joint research being conducted by students and faculty in biology and mathematics/statistics, also an indication of the increasing collaborative efforts and interdisciplinary research being undertaken.

Alumni and friends of the university have become interested in the ways in which our students work with faculty in research. As a result, we have received major gifts that sponsor students to work with faculty in the summer. The one-on-one interactions and mentoring students receive while being part of a research community are attractive to donors who know the students are being well prepared for the future. With the major gifts at their current level of endowment, we are able to fully fund eight students and two faculty members in the summer.

Undergraduate research has become part of the fabric of the experience for students at James Madison University. It has required many changes in the campus across several organizational divisions. The long-term efforts have paid off, but continual efforts are required to maintain momentum and to continue to expand and enhance research opportunities for our students. Undergraduate research is here to stay.


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Brakke, D.F. 2004. Being clear on goals and definitions for undergraduate research, p. 54-55, IN: Wenzel, T. (ed.). Enhancing research in the chemical sciences at predominantly undergraduate institutions. Bates College, Lewiston, ME.

Brakke, D.F. 2005. Preparing students for research: challenges and some results in goal-setting, curricular design, assessment and program coordination, p. 263-268 IN: NSF/AAAS Invention and impact: building excellence in undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. AAAS/NSF, Washington, D.C.

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