NSF Awards $500,000 to the UD, Recognizing Research Opportunities for Undergraduates: press release announcing the award

Newark resident Monroe Hite III, a 1996 University of Delaware graduate who is a project engineer for the Delaware Department of Transportation, said he believes that undergraduate research projects boosted his self-confidence, and therefore,his chances for success in a professional setting.

Supervised by award-winning teacher Ardeshir Faghri, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, Hite's UD research focused on intelligent transportation systems, an array of technologies including "smart" route-guidance systems inside vehicles and traffic sensors imbedded in roadways.

Though Hite has not yet developed these technologies for DelDOT, he said his research experience allows him to communicate more effectively with colleagues. In fact, Hite's younger sister, Monique C. Hite, was so impressed by his undergraduate experience that she's pursuing a civil engineering degree, too. "I told her everything the University had done for me and my career, and now she's following in my footsteps," said Hite, a former Eagle Scout who also credits the University's support services for African-American students, such as Resources to Insure Successful Engineers (RISE).

Hite was a model student, Faghri reported, but his undergraduate experience was not unique. Every undergraduate at the University of Delaware is invited to gain research skills--either through advanced projects supervised by a faculty mentor, or as part of discovery-based learning activities in classrooms, University President David P. Roselle said.

Those efforts were applauded today by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which announced that the University of Delaware will be one of only 10 institutions nationwide, selected from a pool of over 100 universities, to receive a three-year, $500,000 award recognizing "bold leadership," producing "meaningful results" in the integration of research and education. "We set out, several years ago, to change what it means to get an education at our University," Roselle said. "That vision has improved the entire learning environment, encompassing every academic unit. The vast majority of our faculty--including about 90 percent of all engineering, biological and physical science professors--now actively participate in providing research opportunities for undergraduates."

On Feb. 21, Roselle and Undergraduate Research Program Coordinator Joan S. Bennett will accept the 1997 Recognition Award for the Integration of Research and Education (RAIRE) at the NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va. As an award recipient, the University will serve as a model for other U.S. institutions. Consequently, it will document and disseminate program information on the World Wide Web, and it will launch a three-year assessment of its undergraduate research initiatives--problem-based learning and undergraduate research apprenticeships.

Getting Real in the Classroom "If you want to evaluate a proposal to place a new incinerator in New Castle County or whether to dam White Clay Creek, you might find the task less daunting if you had some research experience as an undergraduate," said Harold B. White III, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

That's why White and many other UD faculty are pioneering problem-based learning, or PBL, activities in general classrooms. The PBL technique requires students to tackle specific real-life problems, then discover how to solve them, with the teacher working as a facilitator, White explained. In this way, all undergraduates gain research experience. "Understanding such complex scientific issues helps our students become more productive, active citizens," White said.

In Chandra Reedy's art conservation classes, for example, undergraduates will soon be investigating the authenticity of a 6th century B.C. sculpture. "Instead of lecturing to my students, I plan to turn them into art detectives," said Reedy, an associate professor. "They will learn about art history, archaeology and chemistry. They will also talk about business ethics, and whether they should buy a sculpture that might be a fake."

Similarly, Deborah E. Allen, an assistant professor of biology who recently received a teaching-excellence award, gets students interested in photosynthesis by asking them to evaluate a real proposal to counteract global warming by dumping iron into the ocean off Antarctica. In theory, iron might boost the amount of chlorophyll in the water, thereby increasing photosynthesis, which would reduce excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But efforts to test this theory have produced conflicting results, Allen said, and students must therefore conduct their own investigations.

The technique, initially developed in medical schools, "lets students learn critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills," Allen said. "Because they work in teams, students are also honing their verbal and written communication skills. And, they're learning to tell good science from bad science. That's a skill we all need in our everyday lives, when making decisions about, for instance, health care or whether to use dietary supplements."

Problem-based learning initiatives at the University have earned a number of national awards, according to Barbara Duch, interim associate director of the Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center. Most recently, Duch, White and Allen received grants from the FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education) as well as the NSF to expand a program that helps undergraduates become faculty-supervised peer tutors, facilitating PBL activities. Several years ago, another $240,000 NSF grant made it possible to incorporate PBL activities into introductory science courses. "Nationally," Duch said, "the University has gotten a reputation for being at the cutting edge of undergraduate reform based on PBL principles." Currently, George H. Watson, an associate professor of physics and astronomy, is leading efforts to integrate and expand the broad array of PBL activities throughout campus.

Individual Research Projects Marijka Grey, a 22-year-old junior, plans to become a physician, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. Currently, she's investigating whether light/dark cycles play a role in regulating the production of prolactin, a key reproductive hormone in mammalian females. Grey, a native of St. Kitts Island in the Caribbean, works closely with associate biology professor Richard S. Donham. But, she emphasized, "I make my own conclusions."

Grey is among the hundreds of students served each year by the University's Undergraduate Research Program, or URP. Initially established with a three-year grant from the FIPSE, "the URP is perhaps the most comprehensive undergraduate research program at a state university in the United States," Bennett said. Across the campus, 63 percent of the entire faculty, including many representing the humanities, regularly offer undergraduate research opportunities, Bennett noted. Ellen Yurek of Newark, Leonard Stark of Wilmington and Mike Nagle of Frankfort, Ill., are also typical of students who complete URP projects.

One of White's former students, Yurek conducted evolutionary biology and analytical biochemistry research, including two summers in a clinical pathology laboratory at ICI (now Zeneca) before graduating in 1984. She then worked in a laboratory at the University of Bordeaux in France and earned a Master's degree from Michigan State University. Zeneca quickly hired the young graduate to work as a bioanalytical chemist. Later, she joined IBRD-Rostrum Global, Inc., a contract pharmaceutical company in Blue Bell, Pa., where she interprets regulatory guidelines and practices. "Part of the reason I got my first job at Zeneca was because of my undergraduate lab experience," she said. "Now, as an employer, I look for the same type of experience among job applicants."

Nagle, now a refining specialist for Amoco's chemical division, conducted an undergraduate study of the surface chemistry of catalysts, which transform raw materials into useful products such as gasoline. After graduation, he immediately went to work as a researcher, while also earning a business degree. "My undergraduate research helped me investigate key principles of interest to industry," he said. "It also gave me the technical background I needed to move forward in my career."

Stark, who holds a law degree from Yale University and is currently a law clerk for a federal judge, attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar after graduating from UD. His Oxford research, focusing on leadership in the British political system, was recently published in Britain and the United States by MacMillan/St. Martin's Press. Stark said his undergraduate research experience gave him the skills and confidence he needed to undertake this project.

Most URP projects typically involve intensive summer apprenticeships with a faculty mentor and up to two years of increasingly independent research, Bennett said. Research students may earn academic credit toward their degrees. They may also receive University stipends, or be paid through faculty research grants or through internships with 75 industrial and government organizations participating in the Delaware Research Partnership. A summer exchange program lets other students conduct research abroad. A variety of UD initiatives, such as RISE, help draw minority students into the research arena.

A Model for Other U.S. Institutions Now, as a RAIRE winner, UD "will set the pace for other universities, by providing guidelines for expanding undergraduate research opportunities and incorporating discovery activities in every classroom," Bennett said. Program information will soon be available via UD's World Wide Web home page (http://www.udel.edu), under "learning and research." The site will be linked with the NSF home page (http://www.nsf.gov). In addition, the University has launched an ambitious three-year study of its undergraduate research initiatives, supervised by Karen Bauer, assistant director of the Office of Institutional Research and Planning.

Bauer's team will compare a sample of UD students who participate in discovery learning, either through undergraduate research or PBL activities, with non-participating students. The study will include a variety of qualitative and quantitative measures to examine the cognitive and social skills that students gain through research experience. Among other items, the study will examine retention rates, employment or graduate-school placement, and the extent to which students become more critical and flexible thinkers, Bauer said.

It will also examine faculty attitudes toward undergraduate research and the experience of UD alumni. "We want to document the impact the University is having on students' lives after they graduate," she said. "We believe that the integration of research in education helps students become more mature, independent and self-confident. Abilities such as these enable our students to become highly valued scholars and other employees and, ultimately, better citizens in our society."

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Copyright © University of Delaware, February 1997.
Last Updated: September 22, 1997.