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Undergraduate Research Rooted In Applied Learning Approach

By Eric Gorton, JMU Public Affairs

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Paper by Dr. David Brakke, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, provides another look at the history of undergraduate research at JMU.

With presentations in areas including history, psychology, computer science, integrated science and technology and bio-chemistry, 20 James Madison University students will participate in the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research annual meeting April 10-12 at Salisbury (Md.) University.

This will be the 19th consecutive year of JMU student involvement in the conference, which began in 1987 and promotes undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activity done in partnership with faculty or other mentors.

“Faculty-student mentored projects provide unique educational experiences that contribute to the students’ personal growth, leads them to apply new knowledge to real world problems, and NCUR provides a forum for them to exhibit their accomplishments," said Pat Buennemeyer, JMU's director of research compliance.

NCUR is just one of many venues where JMU undergraduates showcase their research skills. In the past two years, JMU students have won poster contests at the annual Geology Society of America meeting for research they have done along the shores of the Great Lakes in Michigan; for the past three years, JMU has hosted the Shenandoah Undergraduate Mathematics and Statistics Conference; and many students participate in JMU's summer research experience for undergraduates program and in other university-guided research.

Recognition of those efforts has gone well beyond the individual conferences and the JMU campus. In 2007, U.S. News & World Report recognized JMU as one of the top 35 universities in the nation for undergraduate research programs. JMU was one of just 12 public universities to make the list. And this fall, JMU will join 11 other universities selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to pilot a phage genomics course that will give freshmen bona fide research experience.

"Research and applied programs really mirror the development of the institution as a whole."

John Noftsinger, JMU vice provost for research and public service

John Noftsinger, JMU vice provost for research and public   service

The practice of undergraduate research at JMU has been an evolutionary process that can be traced to the university's beginning as a teaching school, said John Noftsinger, JMU vice provost for research and public service. "I think research and applied programs really mirror the development of the institution as a whole," Noftsinger said, noting that undergraduate researchers today apply in the field what they learn in the classroom much the way the university's first student teachers did when they performed student teaching.

Some of the earliest undergraduate research by JMU students involved archaeological studies, Noftsinger said. In the 1980s, undergraduate research opportunities expanded with the emergence of pre-professional health programs, human service programs and development of a master's program in psychology. With the start of the College of Integrated Science and Technology in the 1990s, student research developed in technology areas. College of Business students also were getting into applied research in entrepreneurship around that time.

"It's all part of the evolution of the institution, although we have not changed our philosophy or position that teaching should be our primary mission," Noftsinger said.

Added Ken Newbold, JMU director of research development, "I think our curricular approach lends itself well to establishing that cohort of undergraduate researchers who want to have these experiences and seek them out while they're here at JMU."

Students are reaping the benefits of the undergraduate research experience.

Ken Newbold "Our curricular approach lends itself well to establishing that cohort of undergraduate researchers who want to have these experiences and seek them out while they're here at JMU."

Ken Newbold, JMU director of research development

"The other thing you see is that our students are very successful when they graduate, either going to graduate school or in corporations and industry," Noftsinger said. "We hear that people like our students because they feel like they are able to hit the ground running and they really work well in the teams that are now dominate in corporate America."

While undergraduate research is well established at JMU, there is room for more. One signal of a bright future for undergraduate research at JMU is the establishment of a new pharmaceutical research center in the area by research giant SRI International.

"Having SRI locate here is a transformational event," Noftsinger said. "We will see opportunities or enrichment for faculty by doing summer programs, collaborative grants, having students work there. We already have written several grants with them. I think it gives us a unique advantage."

Noftsinger and Newbold said SRI will provide opportunities to students even after they graduate, especially as SRI attracts or forms other companies. "There will be that pipeline for students who want to stay in Harrisonburg and the Shenandoah Valley. You have that ability after graduation to pursue a career here," Newbold said.

"What we really want to do," Noftsinger said, "is create an environment where our scientists and technology people can do basic and applied research, and then we can get our students and our faculty involved, in places like the College of Business, to take these ideas and bring them to companies. We're trying to create a system of innovation that will allow us to be economically competitive in the future."

Published March 2008