Research can be the bane of a student’s existence, but the Office of Undergraduate Research, directed by Dr. Greg Powell, M.E. Pruitt Professor of chemistry, is trying to improve its reputation. This year marks the first for the department, formed as part of ACU’s 21st Century Vision.
“It was the Vision Leadership Team that decided undergraduate research would be an area of emphasis, because it provides students with experiential learning, so that it’s not just textbook learning or classroom learning but actually learning by doing something,” Powell said. “The Vision Leadership Team saw this as an opportunity to make ACU a place where people know academics is taken seriously.“
Many students are involved in research projects in the spring and fall semesters, but Powell said he wants research to be a year-round activity. To that end, the office supported seven students in research projects last summer.
ACU also had its first Undergraduate Research Festival, a three-day event, in April, although it was conducted by the Honors College, the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning, the McNair Scholars Program and the Brown Library, not the Office of Undergraduate Research. Powell said planning is underway for a second festival next semester.
“Last year’s festival generated excitement on campus,” he said. “It was really nice to see how many students were enthusiastic about sharing their search results. I think now there is some momentum building as a result of that.”
Powell says he hopes to use that momentum to expand programs that have typically remained squarely in the science departments. He encourages all students and faculty to get involved in research, and he said his office is working to bring in other subjects and majors by demonstrating what a valuable learning experience research can be.
“Classroom knowledge is reinforced, but you are given an opportunity to apply that knowledge to a particular research project or problem you are trying to solve,” he said.
Opportunities such as these are only possible with the full support and participation of faculty members acting as mentors to students.
“A big part of the ACU difference is the faculty’s willingness to spend time with students in the first place,” Powell said. “Establishing a relationship with a faculty mentor is a big advantage of undergraduate participation in research, because you get to see that faculty member in action tackling a particular problem, helping you with the investigation.”
Sarah Boyd, senior graphic design major from Abilene participated in a research project this summer with Robert Green, professor of art and design.
Boyd researched maps during the summer for a series of five paintings of famous historical journeys Green was creating. Boyd spent close to 80 hours searching for maps and old books and learning about frames and canvases.
It was Green’s first experience with undergraduate research, and he said he would like to do it again.
“It was very beneficial for me,” Green said. “It is the kind of thing that happens more frequently in other departments – because they are involved with hard science, and they have graduate students who are ready to handle it – but hasn’t typically been available to people in our department.”
Boyd said the work she did was interesting, and although she is unsure of her plans after college, she thinks the research will help her whether she attends graduate school or decides to join the workforce.
“It gives you an experience to learn about a trade you are studying outside the classroom,” Boyd said.
Both Powell and Green said undergraduate research is important for students applying to graduate school and could be a good recruiting tool.
“Research is very important in some fields for acceptance into graduate school,” Powell said. “It gives you advantages over some applicants if you have one or two years of research experience.”