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Iain Crawford (left) and Lauren Barsky have steered the University of Delaware’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice and Work-Study (UDRAW) program through a most unusual year. This photograph of the empty classroom was taken in March 2020, on the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, leading to closure of almost all in-person work at that time and prompting new health protocols that include wearing face coverings and physical distance.

UD’s undergraduate work-study program on a roll

Photos by Maria Errico, Beth Miller, Ariel Ramirez and courtesy of Rachel Antwi and Lucia O’Neill

Research on track despite pandemic upheaval

You might expect to find a 2-year-old undergraduate work-study program under layers of rubble these days, what with all the restrictions because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But despite the unprecedented upheaval and what must have often seemed like a game of 52-card pickup, students in the University of Delaware’s Research Apprenticeship Work-Study (UDRAW) program have made significant progress on projects and discovered new things about themselves, their world and their options for the future.

UDRAW, which provides a broad range of research-related, part-time jobs to eligible students, drew 20 students in its pilot launch in 2018-19. That number has more than tripled in the past two years. Seventy-four students participated in the 2019-20 academic year, 77 have taken part so far in this academic year and there are still open positions for which faculty are actively recruiting. (To explore those, click here.)

Work-study programs are “one of the hottest trends in undergraduate research nationally,” said Iain Crawford, director of UD’s program and a past president of the national Council on Undergraduate Research (CURE). “We have an unusually large summer research program, but what is important about this program — it shifts the way we think about undergraduate research, expanding access to a high-impact practice.”

The 2015 book New Directions for Higher Education devotes a chapter to undergraduate research, linking it to academic success, higher graduation rates and greater persistence, with especially significant benefits for underrepresented minorities.

“These are powerful programs and increasingly relevant to the University of Delaware as the student population changes over the next few years,” Crawford said.

UDRAW allows all participating students to experience research and make some money in the process. A paying job is essential for many students and these work-study options provide income — usually up to $1,000 for a semester of work.

Rachel Antwi, a sophomore majoring in human services, said she loves the program. She is in her second year with UDRAW.

Rachel Antwi, a sophomore majoring in human services, said UD’s Research Apprenticeship Work-Study (UDRAW) program allows her to see what it’s like to do research and explore future career options.

“Being in this program allows me to gain experiences with research that will look great on my resume,” she said. “This program allowed me to explore future career options. Maybe after this, I’ll decide to take the research route or maybe I will decide not to. Just being able to be exposed to different opportunities helps me narrow down my options.”

Antwi worked last spring with Bryan VanGronigen, assistant professor in UD’s School of Education. VanGronigen studies organizational resilience and change management in K-12 schools.

One of his projects focuses on the capacity of state education departments to improve underperforming schools. To explore that, he needs detailed information about those schools and others like them. UDRAW students have helped him gather and manage that data.

VanGronigen said he took advantage of research opportunities when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri. Now, as a principal investigator, his research questions often exceed the time he has to pursue the answers in the depth he desires.

“I’m way overcommitted,” he said. “That’s how I was trained. I have no shortage of projects and tasks that need to be done. This program offers a way to structure some of the work in a way that is appropriate for those just dipping their toes in the water of basic research. As they progress, though, they can move on to more advanced tasks.”

To be sure, a good bit of the work could be considered “data grunt work,” VanGronigen said. For Antwi, that meant a lot of time visiting the websites of state education departments, sifting through available information, downloading lists of schools and attaching federal identification numbers to the schools of interest. Each step adds to the database for VanGronigen’s study, making richer analysis possible and the results more meaningful.

Brian VanGronigen, Education, headshot
Bryan VanGronigen, assistant professor in the College of Education, has welcomed the contributions of undergraduate students in his study of state education departments and change management.

But it is not what anyone would call exciting.

“I have done my fair share of it and I can commiserate,” VanGronigen said. “Research can be thrilling and inspiring, but it is also exhausting, mundane and frustrating. Working with an effective mentor helps students learn to navigate the ups and downs of such work, while developing the skills and discipline that scientists and researchers must have.”

Some of those benefits were lost to the pandemic last year.

“As a teacher, what pains me is the apprenticeship aspect,” he said. “I think there is tremendous benefit to being in person in the same space with white boards and dry erase markers, teaching research skills.”

But there have been some upsides, too.

“Students have ventured out into the research woods on their own more quickly than I think they would have otherwise,” he said. “It’s a great chance to be empowered and autonomous.

“And I can say that most of my work wasn’t unduly influenced by the pandemic.” 

Making the most of opportunities

Lucia O’Neill, a sophomore in UD’s Honors College, jumped at the chance to participate in UDRAW in her freshman year. She didn’t know that most of her work would be done at home in Staten Island, N.Y., but that didn’t stop her from participating again this year.

Lucia O’Neill, a sophomore majoring in cognitive science, urges eligible students to check out the variety of research opportunities in the UDRAW program.

As a first-year student, O’Neill worked with Kathryn Franich, assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science. This year she is working in the Math Cognition Lab of Christina Barbieri, assistant professor in UD’s School of Education, doing a meta-analysis project with two graduate students and another undergrad.

“It builds up my resume and connects me with other students in a fun environment,” O’Neill said. “I would recommend other students get started as soon as it makes sense to them, as soon as it fits with your schedule.”

Scheduling has been one of O’Neill’s biggest challenges — scheduling time on the family computer, that is.

That time was essential to her work with Franich, who studies how language is structured. Franich asked her students to help annotate acoustic data drawn from speech samples of different languages.

“We have a central server for our lab, where all the data are stored,” Franich said. “We can all access that from anywhere.”

That was a big plus in a year of working from afar. The work could proceed no matter where students were.

“But living with nine other people means a fight for the computer,” O’Neill said. “You have to book your time. We have one PC, so I do a lot of work on my iPad, but this phonetics work had to be done on a PC — an unanticipated challenge.”

Ideally, Franich said, students would be sitting together in her PhonLab, helping each other get up to speed in the different tasks involved. Franich wasn’t sure how the necessary separation would affect the work.

“I told them at the outset that my expectations would be tempered by the situation, but they have been fantastic,” she said. “They all stayed on track. I’m just so blown away by students’ ability to adapt.”

Kathryn Franich, Linguistics and Cognitive Science (Photo Release Obtained)
Kathryn Franich, assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science, studies how language is structured. She said she is glad to be in a university that values undergraduate research and was ‘blown away’ by her students’ ability to adapt to changing circumstances in the past year.

Franich’s students have worked with a native speaker from Cameroon, who was interested in documenting and describing her own language, Rikpa. Franich had been working with that person before the pandemic hit and that was a valuable connection for everyone when working remotely became a requirement.

“She would send us recordings of the words so we could help her do acoustic analysis of her language, joining our lab meetings every Monday morning, which for her was Monday afternoon,” Franich said.

The research includes a list of words and phrases and analysis of the boundaries of consonants and vowels, individual phrases and whole sentences.

It’s painstaking work, as research must be, but getting into that nitty-gritty with Franich and Barbieri was valuable to O’Neill, who is studying cognitive science and is intrigued by the workings of the brain.

“I was most surprised about how much more I could learn about research by partaking in it than by reading about it,” she said. “On top of that, both areas of research in which I have participated were ones I had never considered — or even knew existed — so they broadened my vision of the world around me.

“It’s a hands-on chance to see the inner workings of the academic world,” O’Neill said. “Very practically, it affords the opportunity to network and expand one’s mind, while also looking great on a resumé. Last but not least, the environment is professional yet very friendly and cooperative.”

Franich said she loves seeing the options UDRAW gives undergraduates.

“I feel lucky to be working at a University that values research experiences for undergraduates,” Franich said. “It injects a lot of life into the lab scene, having young budding researchers and students interested in learning more — I love that about the UD environment. I hope it continues long into the future.”

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