In the Field: Undergraduate Research in Marine Sciences

Written by GRC Amy Pflaumer, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Marine Sciences

I’ve had the privilege to serve as a Maymester Graduate Research Consultant for Marc Alperin’s MASC/ENTS 220 NC Estuaries: Environmental Processes and Problems for the past 2 years. This course is particularly well-suited to the GRC program due to its substantial off-campus field component. Following a few weeks of classroom instruction in Chapel Hill, the students spend a week at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) in Morehead City. There, they have the unique opportunity to apply their newfound knowledge of estuary processes during a day-long sampling trip down the Neuse River Estuary, followed by sample analysis in the laboratory and preparation of a final presentation. As a graduate student based in Morehead City, I’m able to aid the students in working with the field and lab equipment necessary to collect and process water samples. Equally important, I have the opportunity to introduce students to my graduate research, as well as my experiences in the graduate program at the Institute of Marine Sciences.

I really enjoy serving as a GRC. The week the Maymester students spend at the coast flies by in a blur of activity. For that week, we spend all day every day together, so I have the chance to talk to the students 1-on-1 and really get to know them. It’s impressive to see the transformation students undergo over the course of a single week, from offering hesitant answers to Dr. Alperin’s questions on day 1 to confidently delivering a highly detailed presentation to the Neuse River Estuary experts at IMS on their final day. Students work hard, gain some great hands-on experience, soak up an almost unbelievable quantity of information, and have a great time; I’m happy to be a part of it as the GRC.

Undergraduate Research and the Mentoring Process

Written by Dr. Donna Bickford, Associate Director in the Office for Undergraduate Research

This is a timely moment to be thinking about mentoring. The Chronicle of Higher Education just published Beth McMurtrie’s piece on the importance of mentoring junior faculty. In June, Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty wrote about the increasing insistence of funding agencies that the grants they fund include robust mentoring plans. And, UNC’s own Katie Walker notes the dearth of information for and attention to graduate and professional students who are mentoring undergraduates. At OUR, of course, we are particularly interested in encouraging effective and impactful mentoring of undergraduates by all the other members of our research community with whom they interact.

One of the sessions I attended at the recent Council on Undergraduate Education (CUR) conference was on Mentor Training, Engagement and Evaluation. My colleague in the URPD Division, Linda Blockus from the University of Missouri-Columbia, along with Jessica Brown from California State University at Monterey Bay, presented the workshop which focused on responding to this question: “Given all that we ask of our undergraduate research mentors, how do we best train, sustain, and provide feedback to mentors at all stages of their careers?”

Blockus and Brown detail a number of reasons for training mentors including:

  • Improving the undergraduate research experience for everyone
  • Increasing buy-in
  • Creating community
  • Sharing resources
  • Responding to changing student demographics

They also pointed out that, in addition to training faculty, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students in good practices for mentoring undergraduate researchers, we need to educate the undergraduates themselves about how to be good mentees.Mentees

Mentoring workshops and periodic roundtables focused on topics relevant to mentoring relationships can help educate mentors as well as provide support and guidance around the mentoring experience. These can also be used to for mentors to share effective strategies and to provide feedback to each other. Some of the topics Blockus and Brown discuss in the workshops and roundtables they facilitate include:

  • Planning a productive experience with your student(s)
  • Guiding students through the abstract writing process
  • Establishing expectations with Students: Hiring, Firing, Contracts, & more!
  • Maintaining effective communication
  • The (unspoken) role of the mentor in the fellowship application process
  • Conveying Ethical and Responsible Conduct of Research to Undergraduates
  • Maximizing your Time as a Mentor/Maximizing your Mentee’s Time
  • Addressing Diversity
  • Best practices in identifying undergraduate research projects
  • Introducing Reading the Primary Literature to students in your lab

Blockus and Brown also noted the need to educate P&T committees about the significance of mentoring undergraduate research. In addition to asking mentors and mentees to consider what success for an undergraduate researcher “looks like” to the student and to the mentor, they ask “What does success for a faculty member ‘look like’ to the P&T committee?”

Perhaps the most important point made in this session was the need to articulate and discuss expectations – both the expectations the mentor has of the mentee and the expectations the mentee has for the mentor. Both parties have assumptions about the experience and it’s important to make those assumptions visible and use them to open a conversation. Blockus shared a Goal Planning Worksheet her program uses with students in Missouri’s summer science research programs which asks students to identify their learning goals for the summer and to reflect on their expectations of the mentoring experience.

Some questions for mentors to consider about their expectations for their undergraduate researchers include:

  • What expectations do you have for undergraduate researchers you are mentoring?
  • How are expectations conveyed to students?
  • When are these expectations best conveyed? During hiring? During the first week? As feedback in a month’s time? As needed?
  • When do the expectations for students change? How are the new expectations conveyed?
  • When students fail to meet expectations, how do you handle that?
  • When a student is working with a ‘surrogate’ mentor (grad student, post doc, tech), how are expectations established, communicated, and monitored?
  • If things begin to go downhill, how will you handle that? What steps will you take?
  • What questions do you ask when agreeing to work with a student researcher?
  • What are your expectations for students becoming independent learners? How are these expectations conveyed to students?
  • If the student is working with you in a lab setting or on a research team, what are your expectations for attendance at and participation in lab/team meetings?

Finally, here are some additional mentoring resources you might find useful:

CUR has published a handbook on How to Mentor Undergraduate Researchers (scroll down for this 2010 volume).

The University of Wisconsin at Madison provides a number of online mentoring resources.

The HHMI-funded mentoring handbook, Entering Mentoring, is available at our website. Although it is geared to scientists, much of the material is relevant to mentoring in other disciplines. This handbook is used as the basis for a mentoring workshop offered periodically by OUR Liaison Dr. Jenny Hayden.

Nature’s Guide for Mentors is very extensive and includes a self-assessment mechanism for mentors.

What I Learned as GRC in an Astrophysics Course

Written by Erik Dennihy, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy

During the spring 2014 semester I took the opportunity to serve as the Graduate Research Consultant for a research-based undergraduate course, ASTR 502: Astrophysics II with Dr. Sheila Kannappan. Like many of the courses discussed on this blog, the class centered on giving students a hands-on experience in scientific research. Modern research methods such as programming, proper uses of statistics, and numerical simulation were covered early on in the course to serve as the tools the students would need to carve a project of their own. I was excited about the plan and had no doubt this would be a more stimulating teaching assignment than I had taken on in semesters past. Naturally, the skills and methods I did not plan on teaching ended up dominating my reflections on the course.

As the course wore on and the students found themselves confronting inescapably interesting intellectual pathways in the face of hard deadlines, an unforeseen (at least to me) series of lessons began taking place. The classroom was transformed from an open forum of scholarly pursuit into a civil war triage center (mild hyperbole of course). The students were getting the sort of crash course in time management that only comes with an individual research effort–a lesson that I naively assumed they had already learned given that they were all upper level undergraduates. Luckily, my lack of foresight on this topic was rectified by Dr. Kannappan when she directly confronted the idea of students scaling down their projects in class one day.

Until that time, I had not even considered the possibility that the students may not have been using their time most efficiently. The students were always working hard during class time and asked few questions which I took to be a sign of understanding and progression. But as I began to discuss with students their options for de-scoping without jeopardizing the goals of the projects, I realized that, for most of the topics, the barriers they had spent most of their time navigating around could have been easily traversed had they simply asked for help earlier. I knew the students well (some from previous courses) and had trouble with the idea that they would withhold a question that they knew I or Dr. Kannappan could answer. While reflecting on the course after the semester it finally dawned on me that the environment we had established in the classroom from the beginning was very different from a regular classroom. The students were expected to produce individual research results and although Dr. Kannnappan stressed the importance of limiting the scope of the projects as much as possible, I think the students still placed a certain importance on the individual aspect. After all, growing up as an aspiring scientist, the rock stars of the science world all stand alone in their greatness. Rarely do we learn early on about the great triumphs of a team of scientists.

In that sense, if I could change anything about the way I approached my role as a GRC it would be to pay closer attention to the types of questions students weren’t asking. The ideal scenario would then be to answer these questions without forcing the students to ask them, thereby allowing them to retain both their sense of individual accomplishment and project schedule. This can be better accomplished in a general sense by staying a few steps ahead of each student in his/her research project, and trying to identify trouble points and ambiguities. Of course this is perhaps already known to those with more wisdom in the art of mentoring, but for a young graduate student in his first GRC role it was an unanticipated but much appreciated takeaway.

Research and Performance in a Communications Studies Course

Written by Rebecca Nesvet, GRC and former graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

As the Graduate Research Consultant for the inaugural run of Prof. Joseph Megel’s Communications 566: Media in Performance (MiP), I got to watch our brilliant, original, and self-motivated students create the universe. Like any process of creation, theirs involved a great deal of preliminary research, and presented opportunities for further research. Although I have an MFA in Dramatic Writing and considerable experience creating and teaching live performance, the GRC experience taught me vital lessons about the relationship between scholarly research and artistic practice.

The course was offered by permission of the instructor, and Prof. Megel, together with his co-teacher Will Bosley, Beasley Lab Manager at the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence and OASIS, selectively admitted a group of students with special, tried talent and experience in performance, musical composition, design, directing, and technology. In each of four project-based units, four groups of students created a performance piece. The technology that they learned to support these pieces was frequently generated using Isadora, and included playback control and distribution, telephony, VOIP, HD Video, Digital Projection, LCD displays, Digital Audio technologies—often for the performance of original musical compositions—PhotoShop, theatrical lighting design, and live puppetry — in one case involving balloons.

At the start of each unit, Prof. Megel and, organized students into new groups, so that each student got to work with all others at least once. I researched and supplied texts for adaptation, indicative process articles for students to emulate, and videos of historically significant performances. I also had the opportunity to give a few talks about dramatic structure, process writing, and other relevant skills. Then, I worked with individual groups as their ‘dramaturg’: the theatre practitioner responsible for guiding performers’ and especially directors’ and playwrights’ exploration of the contexts of their pieces and fine-tuning of their structure. As such, I recommended reading and viewing materials, read scripts and gave formative feedback, and did the same, upon request, with process journals. 

I also liaised with the Renaissance Computing Institute (RenCI) on campus to obtain their Social Computing Room (SCR) at the Odum Institute’s space in Davis Library, as an experimental performance space. In this panoramic, immersive projection space, one student group created the term’s most innovative, magical, and even mystical performance. Trevor Phillips, Elliot Darrow, Kevin Spellman and Ben Elling devised a piece in which two performers seemed to “create the universe,” by seeming to throw, pinch, swipe, mow, and finger-paint unrecognizable galaxies onto the darkness upon the proverbial “waters” of the SCR. At the end, they turned, reminiscent of Leonardo’s Adam and God, to discover—and perhaps imagine or reveal—each other. The concluding piece of the course’s final, public showcase, this work was not only creative, it was reflexive. It seemed to incorporate ideas from the extremely talented collaborators’ individual previous work, for instance, by silently, partially echoing Darrow’s 2013 College Slam Unions Poetry Invitational (CUPSI)-winning performance poem (“I mean what else is our planet,” Darrow asked, “but the pinnacle of exterior design?”). However, dominatedNesvet SCRWipe (2) by no individual collaborator, the piece dramatized the process of collaborative creation that its creators had been studying and honing throughout the term.

From MiP, I learned that performance research is a cyclical process. The course exposes students to published, peer-reviewed research on live performance that incorporates various kinds of media, primarily, but not exclusively, digital. But students do not act only as critics: they channel their critical inquiry to inform creative performance. By critically analyzing their own performance processes, students are able to continue their experimentation in an informed manner. They learn not only about how to develop various sorts of mediated performance, but to incorporate published research, test its assumptions, collaborate with other artist-researchers, and, perhaps most importantly, reflect upon their own ways of working. As many of the students currently have professional work in the performance arts or are pursuing it, this course demonstrates why research need not exist outside practice. Instead, research skills generate best practice.

Two Perspectives on History 398: Stalinism in Historical Perspective

Written by Trevor Erlacher, GRC and graduate student in the Department of History and Don Raleigh, Jay Richard Judson Distinguished Professor in the Department of History

From Trevor:

Having worked as a Graduate Research Consultant this past semester, I am convinced of the great value of the GRC program for students honing their research skills. The GRC format allows for one-on-one coaching, which provides an effective complement to the normal in-class instruction. In my experience, students who were otherwise reluctant to share and develop their thoughts in class spoke freely about their ideas with me. Most relished the extra attention on their projects. They took my suggestions and criticisms seriously and gratefully, and seemed to genuinely appreciate hearing my perspective, which I offered as a supplement to the valuable feedback of their peers and Professor Raleigh. Nearly everyone got excited about the projects they were working on, and I shared their enthusiasm. It was a real pleasure teaching them what I know of the historian’s craft and the history of Stalinism, challenging them to look for sources in new places, and inspiring them to think about their subjects in new ways. They also taught me a lot about the diverse and fascinating topics of their own original research. I would welcome the opportunity to serve as a GRC again.

From Don:

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to have Trevor Erlacher serve as GRC for my undergraduate research seminar, HIST 398: Stalinism in Historical Perspective. His involvement greatly enriched the course not only because he offered so much sound advice based on his own rich and diverse research experience, but also because he connected with the students in a way that made it possible for us to attend to each student’s personal research needs. Trevor held private consultations with them throughout the semester, which nicely complemented the seminar sessions and my own one-on-one meetings with them. The experience—and the end result as reflected in the student papers—proved so positive that I look forward to working with GRCs again when I next offer a research seminar. In fact, I’m now seriously considering adding a major research component to a 400-level lecture and discussion course I will teach this fall.

Undergraduate Research in English 438: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

Written by Rachael Isom, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

What if Jane Eyre had decided to live in sin with Mr. Rochester? Would Frankenstein’s Creature have been less destructive if his maker had been a woman? What if Sir Thomas Bertram had satisfied Fanny Price’s curiosity about the slave trade by taking her to his sugar plantations in Antigua? These are some of the questions posed by students in English 438, Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. During the Spring 2014 semester, I had the privilege of working with these students as a graduate research consultant for Professor Jeanne Moskal. The readings and assignments for this course encouraged students to engage critically and creatively with the nineteenth-century “novel of vocation” as represented by four key texts: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Valperga, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The two major written assignments for this course were a targeted research essay and a creative essay, each allowing students to choose topics of interest.

For the targeted research essay, students were to summarize and respond to either a critical interpretation of Mansfield Park or a historical essay. In conferencing with students, I was impressed by their deep engagements with these sources. Undaunted by scholarly critiques of Austen’s work or essays on subjects removed from their own twenty-first century experiences, these students confidently approached complex issues and contributed their own voices to conversations that could be intimidating even to graduate students. Their work demonstrated nuanced readings of secondary texts and fresh perspectives on Mansfield Park. One student, for instance, analyzed a landmark essay on Mansfield Park and pursued a gap in its argument by using her own knowledge of Austen’s novel. Other students tied aspects of the Romantic period to current events or social customs, creating more tangible connections and thereby making the texts relevant to their own lived experiences.

In the creative assignment, I was fascinated by the students’ investment in the project and the interesting ways they rethought and rewrote passages from the course’s key texts. Many students composed imitations altering single elements of original passages to address latent religious, economic, and gender issues. One student chose to consider Jane Eyre alongside James Frey’s recent book A Million Little Pieces as fictionalized autobiographies. By drawing attention to Jane Eyre’s subtitle and placing the novel in context with a controversial book from our own culture and time, the student was able to effectively demonstrate how genre labels inform readers’ approaches and reactions to texts.

As students constructed these projects, I was able to conference with them individually, but I also had a chance to interact with them as a class. Early in the semester, Professor Moskal allowed me to deliver a guest lecture on my own research interests and lead a discussion of a topic associated with Mansfield Park. Professor Moskal encouraged me to talk openly about my own experiences as a way to initiate undergraduates, many of whom expressed interest in further study, into the realm of graduate-level research in literature. As I approached this talk, I realized that, although I had often discussed my academic history informally and presented conference papers on my interests, I had never related to a group of students the larger body of my research in the context of my own entrance into the field. The experience proved extremely rewarding: I was able to step back from the immediate projects I have been pursuing and reflect on my larger trajectory and goals as a scholar. I was also challenged by students’ perspectives on the topic we discussed in Mansfield Park, and I received constructive and encouraging feedback from them after my guest talk.

In working with Professor Moskal and her wonderful undergraduates, I was able to witness the cultivation of interest and the fruits of active engagement with a set of texts within my own sphere of interest. The students interacted with landmark texts through innovative scholarly and creative projects, and I was able to learn from the new perspectives they brought to discussions and assignments.

History 302H: History and Film

Written by Andrew Ringlee, GRC and graduate student in the Department of History

During the spring semester 2014 I had the opportunity to serve as a Graduate Research Consultant for an honors seminar titled “History and Film” taught by Professor Louise McReynolds. Numbering only fifteen students, this course was a discussion-based seminar that covered the evolution of cinema as a cultural medium in the United States and Europe during the twentieth century. I attended all meetings of the course, completed all of the required readings, and watched all of the assigned films. When students were placed in small groups for discussion—an activity that happened each Tuesday session of the class—I joined one of the groups and helped guide the conversation on the film and readings. For the final research projects, each student was required to give a presentation on a cinematic theme or trend and to connect this cultural development to the historical period from which it was produced. I assisted the students in coming up with ideas for the projects, determining lists of films to use as evidence, and relating these films to the history of the twentieth century. Examples of projects included an analysis of the relationship between Cold War-era anxieties and science fiction films, a psychoanalysis of femme fatale characters in postwar film noir titles, and the portrayal of Muslim immigrants in contemporary British cinema. The students ended the semester by giving fifteen-minute Powerpoint presentations that incorporated film clips showcasing the strongest evidence.

Serving as a Graduate Research Consultant in this course, I helped the students frame research questions, think critically about evidence in print and on film, and draw conclusions on the relationship between film and history. As a graduate student, I gained valuable pedagogical practice on how to assign film in a history course, how to integrate technology in the classroom, and how to lead an upper-level seminar that requires students to share ideas and to collaborate with their peers.      

Undergraduates Curate an Exhibit: ENGL 444 Imagining the U.S. Civil War

Written by Leslie McAbee, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

For the past few days I’ve been looking back at the photos of the ENGL 444 students standing alongside their cases for the opening of their Civil War exhibit at the Wilson Library on April 24th. In nearly every photo, students are guiding visitors through the materials they have researched and curated. They wear smiles that show their sense of pride and accomplishment, but most of all they look full of stories to tell: about their forays into the Wilson Library archives, their quick transformation from a class to a tight-knit, energized community, and about the items they carefully selected and researched for the exhibit. I had the honor of contributing a small part as GRC to making this experiment in undergraduate experiential learning a tremendous success.

Courtesy of UNC Library. Photo by Kelly Creedon

Courtesy of UNC Library. Photo by Kelly Creedon

Dr. Eliza Richards’ course, Imagining the U.S. Civil War (ENGL 444), challenged students to shuck any expectations for a traditional literature class model. This meant taking reading and analysis to the next level by directly sharing it in a public exhibit of Civil War literature: stories, poems, diaries, letters, memoirs, photographs, and illustrations. With the help of research librarians, especially Emily Kader of the Rare Book Collection, students dove deep into Wilson library’s holdings of Civil War literature and textual materials. They discovered little-known texts and explored topics that provide a textured history of the Civil War that goes beyond the predominant cultural memory of the war, which focuses on mass-casualty battles and famous military leaders. After their thoughtful selection of texts for the exhibit cases, students researched the authors, content, and context of each piece. Tommy Nixon, a research librarian with Davis Library, steered students to relevant sources that might illuminate the histories of even the most obscure authors and poets.

Dr. Richards and I worked closely with students as they composed the labels for the items and the cases that had themes chosen by the students, like “Life on the Frontlines,” “Prisoners and Suffering,” “Confederate and Union Poetry,” and “Women in War.”  Though most students worked in groups or pairs, we mentored students on a one-on-one basis to discuss research strategies and how to incorporate their findings into their writings. Writing for a public exhibition provided a unique opportunity to teach students to write clearly, concisely, and engagingly, an achievement only made possible through extensive revision. I had the pleasure of working intensively with the pair of students mounting the case on children’s literature of the Civil War, Anna Spivey and Wan Ting Lin. Both students–one a foreign exchange student from Taiwan—dedicated themselves to the difficult task of revision. At each meeting, we read aloud the label drafts and talked through the changes that would make the writing and content appeal to a general audience. What was most wonderful to see was that with each meeting, these students became increasingly independent in practicing rigorous revision on their own.

Courtesy of UNC Library. Photo by Kelly Creedon

Courtesy of UNC Library. Photo by Kelly Creedon

On the night of the exhibit’s opening, the Saltarelli exhibition room hummed with the confident voices of students presenting new ways of understanding the Civil War in the year of its sesquicentennial anniversary. I am certain that as I develop my own teaching philosophy and course designs, my time working with this class, with its unique focus on experiential learning will prove invaluable.

Inquiry-Based Teaching and Learning

Senior leaders contributed reflections on the many high-impact experiences currently offered at Carolina.

High Impact Carolina Senior Leadership Panel

In February, UNC hosted a conference on High-Impact Practices where attendees had an opportunity to learn what practices are high-impact, what research shows about their effectiveness and how we might begin to think about implementing them at Carolina. Undergraduate research is one of those high-impact practices. OUR Associate Director Donna Bickford served on the planning committee for the conference (led by the amazing Candice Powell), and presented on the Senior Leadership panel. OUR also had a poster in the poster session. You can find many of the conference materials here.

Faculty across the Carolina campus have begun to embed research components in their courses as a way to help students engage in inquiry-based learning, many with the support of our Graduate Research Consultant program. As a follow-up to the HIP Conference, OUR, in partnership with the Center for Faculty Excellence and its Associate Director and Teaching & Learning Coordinator Molly Sutphen, wanted to provide an opportunity for interested faculty to hear from their colleagues about what approaches they’d found to be successful. We organized a workshop, originally scheduled for February 14. Some of this year’s interesting winter weather interfered, and we were finally able to hold the workshop on April 4.

Several generous faculty members agreed to serve on our panel, including Dr. Patrick Curran, Professor of Psychology; Dr. Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Deputy Secretary of the Faculty and Adjunct Associate Professor in History and American Studies; Dr. Chérie Rivers Ndaliko, Assistant Professor in the Department of Music; and Dr. Michelle Robinson, Assistant Professor in American Studies. Each panelist shared some of their experiences embedding research into undergraduate courses and a robust discussion session ensued.

Several of our presenters used team-based assignments for the research projects, and they discussed their strategies for helping students work effectively in those teams. Dr. Ndaliko recognized the difficulty groups had in arranging for meeting times outside of class, so she devoted class time to group meetings. Groups also self-appointed a coordinator, and created a timeline and their own strategic plan. Dr. Ndaliko has taught several research-exposure courses related to the Yole!Africa project.

For her student teams, Dr. Whisnant provided a range of pre-identified topics and selected resources so that students wasted less time floundering around in the early stages of the project. Her students worked on The Unbuilt Blue Ridge Parkway, a project that is related to the larger Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway digital humanities site. One important thing that Dr. Whisnant’s students learned is that you can’t always find the answers you seek when you attempt to answer a research question.

Dr. Curran noted that part of the value of incorporating research into the classroom is that students have the experience of failing and thus learn the importance of failure in problem-solving, something that has been discussed in other campus settings as well. This serves to normalize failure, and acknowledges that all researchers experience challenges. You can read more about Dr. Curran’s experiences embedding research in his quantitative psychology course here.

In Dr. Robinson’s class, her students produced an intellectual autobiography incorporating the genre conventions of the graphic novels they had been studying. You can read Dr. Robinson’s reflections on this course – along with thoughts from one of her students – here. Dr. Robinson has also blogged about a second research-exposure course, and you can see an example of yet another course’s digital humanities project on Nancy Drew here. She finds that when students are writing for a real audience, the work seems more important to them and they take it more seriously. Dr. Robinson uses a grading rubric on these projects; Dr. Ndaliko incorporates a grading rubric as well.

Dr. Ndaliko summarized the thoughts of our participants when she noted that when we find ways to incorporate research experiences in our undergraduate classrooms, our students are able to “focus on creating and experiencing the research process rather than reading about someone else’s project.”

If you are interested in incorporating inquiry-based learning and undergraduate research in your courses, you may find these resources (including a bibliography) helpful. You can also read more about the experiences of other faculty members and GRCs on the GRC Blog. If you’re interested in transforming one of your courses into a research-exposure course, the deadline to apply for a GRC for Fall 2014 is July 15.

Undergraduate Research and Community Partners: ENGL304 Advanced Expository Writing for Business

Recently I had the pleasure of attending final student team presentations in Dr. Susan Irons’ ENGL304 Advanced Expository Writing for Business course. Parisa Salkhordeh served as the Graduate Research Consultant in this research-exposure course. Throughout the semester, four student teams worked with four community partners: SECU Family House, Johnson Intern Program, Charles House, and Augustine Literacy Project. The assignment was to serve as a consultant to the assigned non-profit in order to make recommendations about how to use social media more effectively to achieve their goals. The recommendations were to be evidence-based and thoroughly researched.

I was very impressed by the high quality of the products the students produced as well as by their professional presentations, which were well-organized with effectively designed powerpoints. The students had obviously invested substantial time in rehearsing their presentations, which were pitched to persuade the community partners to act on the team recommendations. The student teams also fielded questions in a poised and extremely informed way.

There were several common threads across the presentations as the students shared research about the effectiveness of using social media to raise awareness and visibility, the connections between social media and donor giving, the importance of demonstrating the impact of donations, and the need to have very strong messaging about how the community partner is making a difference in the community. The student teams were also attentive to the limited budgets and staff of their assigned organizations. Some included a recommendation to hire an unpaid student intern, and there was a conversation in the Q&A about the best mechanisms for reaching UNC students with internship opportunities. In addition, some teams recommended social media management platforms, like Hootsuite, as a way to limit the staff time needed to maintain an active social media presence.

However, the student teams were very attentive to gearing their recommendations to each community partners’ specific situation. Some community partners had more established and robust social media practices; others had virtually none. Some community partners serve demographics with high email usage, so their recommendations included a semi-annual email newsletter. One student team benchmarked their community partner with other similar community organizations to identify where their social media gaps were. One student team provided data demonstrating that 40% of donor giving happens on-line, but in their community organization only 10% of giving was happening on-line – their recommendations included attention to what social media strategies could be effective in closing that gap.

The students had clearly developed a strong sense of connection to their community partners and to the missions of the organizations with which they were working. This assignment, which Dr. Irons noted would not have been possible without the assistance of the GRC, gave the students an engaged learning experience where they produced a product with real value to non-profit organizations involved in important work in our communities. The students developed a range of transferable skills and a new sense of confidence in themselves as learners, thinkers and knowledge producers.