The Ackland Art Museum, First Year Seminars, and Undergraduate Research

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

On April 29, I had the opportunity to attend part of the Ackland Art Museum’s Spring 2015 Student Showcase. The showcase highlighted work done by students in classes that used the Ackland’s collections as well as presentations from Ackland undergraduate interns.

One of the classes was a research-exposure GRC-supported First Year Seminar: ARTH 89.001 Islamic Art and Science taught by Dr. Glaire D. Anderson in the Art Department.

pocketwatchTwo students from the class presented. Claire Drysdale was interested in the relationship between magic and medicine in the modern era. She looked at a particular pocket watch in the Ackland’s collection. The Swiss-made watch is decorated with Koranic text and symbols. According to Drysdale, the protective qualities of the watch, which served as a talisman, derive from the Koranic scriptures inscribed on the watch. The owner of this watch was a wealthy, educated 19th century Indian man, leading Drysdale to hypothesize that traditional practices of magic coexisted with Western scientific practices at the time.

Allen Tirado looked at North African devotional book. The book is a Guide to Blessings and a collection of prayers todevotional book Muhammad. Interestingly enough, he discovered that there are two very similar books at UNC – one in the Ackland’s collection (circa 1769) and one in the rare books collection at Wilson Library (circa 1853). He examined at the differences and similarities between these handmade books, noting the extensive use of gold leaf in the illustrated manuscripts.

It was very exciting to see students in this first-year seminar present the results of their original research projects.

Wikiversity, World War I, and Undergraduate Research

Written by Ben Mangrum, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English & Comparative Literature

I had the pleasure of serving as Professor Jane Danielewicz’s Graduate Research Consultant for her first-year writing course (ENGL 105i), which used the centennial anniversary of WWI as an opportunity for students to conduct original scholarly research. In particular, Prof. Danielewicz’s students conducted archival research on North Carolinians who fought or somehow participated in the Great War. They worked with the North Carolina holdings in Wilson Library, and their projects were both fascinating and impressive. Through this archival material, students created individual research pages on Wikiversity, which was then compiled into a digital archive on North Carolina in the War. This course Wikiversity page features both extensive research on individuals as well as contextual-historical information. For instance, one student wrote about the racial inequality of the U.S. army through the eyes of a white North Carolinian who observed African American soldiers fighting in Europe. Using individual letters, brochures, diary entries, or other artifacts sent home by soldiers provided a rich texture for historically situating the war.

In addition to gaining insight on working with archival material, this project was especially interesting because it gave students the opportunity to write for a non-specialist audience while still using scholarly skills. Wikiversity is, of course, tailored to an educated general readership. Students therefore had to be attuned to where their research would be published, paying close attention to the clarity of their prose and content. The opportunity to conduct such research through both digital media and archival material afforded these first-year students a unique skillset as they begin their college career.

The GRC Experience in FREN 285

Written by Emma Monroy, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Romance Studies

This semester I served as a Graduate Research Consultant for French 285: Sex, Philosophy and Politics: Revolutions in French Literature, 1721-1834. I gained valuable experience that will be very useful when the time comes to construct my own courses. Even though it has not been too long since I was an undergrad—and I teach beginner and intermediate-level language courses at UNC—it was eye opening to sit in on this class and see how it unfolded from another perspective. Dr. Jessica Tanner provided an excellent model that combined useful contextual information with engaging student-propelled discussion; judging from how students’ comments and questions have evolved over the course of the semester, it is clear how much they have learned and are able to apply to their own analyses and interpretations.

One skill the GRC position allowed me to hone was how to communicate clear strategies for writing a research paper. I have a process that I seem to follow very naturally, but I had never tried to “teach” it to anyone else. Taking the time to construct a handout on how to brainstorm topics, where and how to start researching, as well as a detailed PowerPoint on points to remember while writing (overall organization, how to effectively incorporate secondary sources and avoid plagiarism in its many forms, etc.) helped me to formalize the steps I already had in my head and hopefully helped to guide the students through the process. I’m sure I will reuse these materials in my future teaching.

It was a great experience to follow students’ research topics as they developed from initial interests to more advanced pointed arguments. Dr. Tanner had structured the final paper in a way that made sure students started early on their research topics. I met with them individually around the 6th week of classes to discuss their initial thoughts and suggest potential avenues to pursue and then I got to see how they implemented these first ideas into their first drafts a little over a month later.

Perhaps the most valuable moment for me was being able to teach a course on the Haitian Revolution. The Caribbean is central to my dissertation research, so getting to prepare a lesson on a topic that really interested me was a good glimpse into what my future career may look like. Of course like anything one is passionate about, one finds there is an overabundance of material that would never fit into a 50-minute period! The great challenge then was to give the students a comprehensive overview of the topic so they could have the right tools to analyze the primary source documents I selected for them to read. They were able to apply knowledge of the complicated events and factions involved in the Revolution to examine and unpack the primary texts, identifying reasons why they were written and what goals the author may have hoped to achieve. Throughout the semester, we have had a very enthusiastic and engaged group of students, but it was rewarding to see that same level of interest in their questions and participation when I was teaching.

The GRC position seems to benefit everyone involved. It helps the professor manage a larger class with a research component, as well as gives the students a chance to have more one-on-one interaction and more opportunities to have their work critiqued in a low-stress environment. And of course, it has given me more experience outside of language instruction and broadened my understanding of what my teaching experience will be like once I graduate.

Note: You can read Dr. Tanner’s reflections about the course here.

Undergraduate Research in FREN 285 (Sex, Philosophy, and Politics: Revolutions in French Literature, 1721-1834)

Written by Jessica Tanner, Assistant Professor in the Department of Romance Studies

This semester in FREN 285 (Sex, Philosophy, and Politics: Revolutions in French Literature, 1721-1834), my students were fortunate to work with Graduate Research Consultant Emma Monroy on a semester-length research project related to course themes. As the semester comes to an end and I am starting to work through the final drafts of the research papers that resulted from these projects, I am struck by the degree to which working with a GRC and incorporating original undergraduate research has enriched the course, and thought I would share a few impressions about the experience.

Beginning about a month into the semester, Emma and I began working with students to develop their projects. During class, we both talked a bit about our own research and then guided the students through the process of choosing a topic and formulating a research question. During this phase, they met individually with Emma to move from their broad topic toward a specific area of inquiry, to locate sources at Davis Library and in digital archives, and to develop an argument based on their initial research. In choosing their topics, students were encouraged to bring their own interests to bear on course themes: for instance, a student preparing to go to medical school decided to investigate the influence of Enlightenment thought on the development of understandings of mental illness in 18th-century French medicine, while a journalism major chose to explore the ethical implications of the unchecked freedom of the press implemented during the tumultuous years of the French revolution. While I originally planned to require that students incorporate an object from the UNC collections into their research (a work from the Ackland Art Museum, or a manuscript from the Wilson Library), I ultimately decided to impose fewer restrictions on the objects studied for the project, in light of the extraordinarily diverse disciplinary interests and background of my students this semester. We did visit the Ackland for a guided tour of the wonderful “Genius and Grace” exhibit, which was closely aligned with the themes and period of the course; students were encouraged to incorporate works and ideas from the exhibition into their projects, and a few did so. Looking back on the process now that the projects are complete, I do think that integrating campus collections in a more systematic way could have been successful with sufficient preparation on my part to lay the groundwork; the next time I teach the course, I want to revisit the possibility.

With their topic chosen, the next step was to draft a short abstract and outline of their paper, which allowed me to give them feedback on scope and on the construction of their argument before they began to write. At this point, Emma came back to class to talk to them about how to structure a research paper and incorporate both primary and secondary sources, using a powerpoint she had prepared with guidelines for the writing process. A few weeks later, students submitted a full draft of their paper, on which both Emma and I gave them feedback (a critical step that, with 25 students writing long seminar papers, would have been difficult to implement without a GRC). After submitting the final versions of their written papers last week, students are now presenting their research in two additional forms: first, they are presenting their work in class this week in a colloquium format, with students grouped into panels based on common themes in order to facilitate discussion; and second, they are contributing an entry to a public class blog (, which allows them to synthesize their research findings and present them in a more widely accessible forum.

Throughout the process, students have consistently reported that undertaking the research project – and particularly working with a GRC – was a rewarding experience. Beyond familiarizing my students more deeply with 18th-century France, my goals in incorporating undergraduate research into the course were to bring them closer to a period (and, for many of them, a discipline) that initially feels quite removed from their everyday lives and concerns and to model the interdisciplinary value of humanistic inquiry. Based on their enthusiastic response and the high quality of the work they produced, I believe the project was successful.

Finally, while working with Emma has been a very valuable experience for me and for the students, and I wanted to ensure that it was professionally beneficial for her, as well. To that end, I asked Emma to teach a class on the Haitian Revolution, which is closely related to her own research on the Francophone Caribbean; throughout the semester, she also developed a series of pedagogical materials for the students on research and writing processes that will, I hope, serve her well in her own courses in the future. In short, working with a Graduate Research Consultant has immeasurably enhanced the course for all involved, giving students access to the individual support that makes such an extensive and rewarding project feasible.

Note: You can read Emma’s reflections about the course here.

CHEM251: Introducing Scientific Research in the Large Classroom Setting

Written by Marsha D. Massey, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Chemistry

UNC strives to encourage students to engage in active learning, especially through application of knowledge to a research project when possible. However, opportunities for research are often limited, particularly in the sciences where laboratory application is a main component. I researched approaches for inspiring students towards scientific research early in their studies of chemistry. This goal motivated me to become a Graduate Research Consultant for an introductory inorganic chemistry course, CHEM251.

The biggest challenge in exposing students to research early in their undergraduate career is the large class sizes in introductory science courses. Having all of the students in a class of over 100 undergraduates conduct independent lab experiments and present a final project on their work is not feasible.

But, research is much more than experiments! Working with Professor Miller, I decided to introduce some internet- and library-based aspects of chemistry research. Instead of focusing on conducting or designing experiments, students were encouraged to learn more about particular topics related to inorganic chemistry.

Clicker questions frequently incorporated a real world application for the material being introduced or reviewed in class. For example, when talking about the acidity and solubility of transition metal complexes, we used the color of hydrangea blooms as an example. Students in CHEM 251 are now working on an extra-credit assignment that challenges them to write their own clicker questions to connect the content of introductory inorganic chemistry to a real world application.

In each problem set, we have included an open-ended research question. This contrasts with the typical quantitative, numerical responses students have come to expect from general chemistry training. For these questions students must conduct some independent research to answer appropriately. Again, questions focus on applying broad topics in the course to the real world. In the first problem set, for instance, we asked students to find an example of a transition metal element with widespread use in medical applications and describe its form.

Thus, in completing these assignments students have broadened their view of chemistry and connected recently learned knowledge to their lives.

An Oyster of Great Price? A Semester at the Institute of Marine Sciences

by Kathleen Onorevole, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Marine Sciences

What’s the first image that pops into your mind at the words “scientific research?” If you’re like most people, you just envisioned a lab, a white coat, and plenty of test tubes with mysterious bubbling liquid. An undergraduate student from UNC’s Institute for the Environment (IE) Morehead City Field Site, however, would probably respond with descriptions of coastal marshes, rugged field equipment, and enough mud to destroy an entire roomful of white lab coats. As the IE students learn, scientific research often defies expectations and crosses boundaries in exciting ways.

Every fall, a group of about twenty IE undergrads moves from Chapel Hill to the Southern Outer Banks to study at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS), located in Morehead City. Although s/he may be living at the beach, an IE student’s life at IMS is anything but a vacation. Students enroll in three courses, an independent research project, and a capstone seminar, all of which keep them busy in the classroom, lab, and field. During fall 2014, I served as a Graduate Research Consultant for the capstone course, a position that gave me the opportunity to get to know an outstanding group of undergrads. I was consistently impressed by the students’ dedication and enthusiasm, and found the group’s strong comradery particularly striking given that the students were strangers upon moving to Morehead City.

The 2014 IE Capstone Seminar (ENEC 698) was taught by my advisor, Dr. Michael Piehler, and focused on ecosystem services provided by oyster reefs. Since my research on nitrogen cycling in oyster reefs dovetails nicely with this topic, I was asked to serve as the GRC. The students were tasked with responding to a report issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Research Competitiveness Program, commissioned by the UNC General Administration. One of the recommendations in this report was for UNC to “commission studies on the economic valuation of coastal ecosystem services and natural capital.” Oyster reefs were the resource in question for the capstone, and over the course of the semester, students worked in small groups to quantify ecosystem services provided by these habitats. Ecosystem services refer to processes that are naturally facilitated by habitats and considered relevant to human interests. The physical presence of oyster reefs, for example, helps reduce wave energy, which could limit erosion and loss of coastal property. Ecosystem services are typically represented with dollar values, and the challenge for the IE students was to assess a range of services and convert the data into meaningful economic units.

The students chose to survey oyster reefs that were both closed and open to shellfishing. Working in small groups, they measured physical parameters of the reefs and analyzed water filtration, nitrogen cycling, and habitat provision. One group also measured fecal indicator bacteria in the reefs, which is typically used to guide safe shellfish harvesting. Students planned and executed the lab and field work, giving them ownership over their research that usually isn’t available until graduate school. Meanwhile, I learned to better facilitate group-based research, sometimes through trial and error: always double-check for all field equipment before leaving the dock! The Morehead City IE students also had the opportunity to meet with IE students from the Outer Banks Field Site, located at UNC’s Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo, who were studying oyster aquaculture. During their weekend retreat, the students compared their research methods and results, and brainstormed ways to combine their data in the future.

By the time the students shared their findings with a packed seminar room at the capstone final presentation, they were knowledgeable and articulate about many aspects of oyster reef ecology. After presenting their research, which indicated that the oyster reefs studied were valued between $22 and $32 per square meter, the students deftly answered challenging questions from the audience. They also compiled a written report that will help local coastal managers prioritize oyster reef restoration initiatives. As a grad student, research is my full-time job, and helping the IE students become researchers too gave my own work renewed clarity and meaning. Like anything else, scientific research includes ups and downs, but the IE semester helped both the undergrads and me understand research in ways that go far, far beyond expectations.

You can read more about IMS undergraduate research on oysters here, here, and here.

Involving Undergraduates in Engaged Research

Please join us for an upcoming workshop:

Involving Undergraduates in Engaged Research
Cosponsored by the Office for Undergraduate Research and the Carolina Center for Public Service
Friday, February 13, 2015
8:45-10:30 a.m.
Toy Lounge, Dey Hall

Undergraduate Research and Engaged Scholarship 2 13 15Participants will gain insight from faculty about successful strategies for involving undergraduate students in engaged research through embedding research in courses, advising and mentoring students on independent projects and/or supervising them as research assistants or interns. Faculty panelists include Frank Baumgartner (Political Science), Barbara Friedman (Journalism and Mass Communication) and Daniel Rodriguez (City and Regional Planning); the moderator is OUR Associate Director Donna Bickford. Coffee, tea and bagels will be provided beginning at 8:45 a.m. and the presentation will begin at 9 a.m. Please register here.

Mathematical Modeling and Undergraduate Research

Written by Justin Yeh, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Biology

In the Fall of 2014 I worked as a GRC for BIOL 452: Mathematical and Computational Models in Biology, a course about using mathematical models to answer biological questions. The course includes a group project for which students had to pick a question that they found to be of interest and build a mathematical model to answer it. My duty as a Graduate Research Consultant was to guide the students in selecting a workable question and provide support in building and analyzing the model.

Initially I was somewhat worried that the workload might be heavy, because I was also working as a TA in the same semester for another course. The worry turned out to be unnecessary. It was a really fun and rewarding experience.

As the course’s lectures focus more on how to solve models, the group project is where the students first learn how to build one. A common mistake I noticed in their endeavors is that many just threw in a lot of variables in order to get a complex model, without really knowing what they wanted to get out of it. I found myself asking “what is your hypothesis?” very often. Interestingly enough, this is also the question my advisor has asked me several times in the past regarding my own thesis project. It’s interesting how I failed to see the problem when I have it, but noticed it right away when my role changed.

Meeting the students and listening to their ideas is also an enjoyable process. With students interested in different areas, each project is drastically different from others, many of them pertaining to topics I know nothing about. Nonetheless I can provide assistant because math really is the universal language of science. Along the way they also taught me a few things I would never have known about otherwise.

Guiding people on their own research project is something I never done before. The GRC program provided me the experience, and the students also benefited from it. All in all, it was wonderful.

Russia, Research and Reflections

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

During the fall semester of 2014 I served as a Graduate Research Consultant for History 161, a survey course titled “Russia Becomes an Empire: 862-1861.” As a former teaching assistant of this course and a specialist in the history of tsarist Russia, I was well prepared to work with students on research assignments for this class. The instructor, Professor Louise McReynolds, assigned the undergraduates to write either a short research paper or a book review for the course. I met individually with the students who selected to write research papers and helped them narrow their interests into manageable projects and guided their searches for primary sources in the Davis Library at UNC. I asked each student if he or she possessed knowledge of foreign languages and, even though the undergraduates expressed reservations at first, I located published letters and memoirs in German and French that were pertinent for the research projects. In the end, the foreign-language texts proved less daunting than the students feared, and I was very pleased to see that the students made use of these primary sources in their papers. I read rough drafts of each of the research papers and made numerous suggestions for improving the content and analysis, and I pointed out minor mistakes with style, grammar, and citations.

For the book reviews, I helped craft a master list of important monographs and primary accounts that fell within the chronological and thematic frameworks of the course. More than a few students emailed me for help choosing a book, and I directed them toward works that appealed to their interests. The master list of possible books fell into three broad categories: historical monographs, primary sources, and literary works. Knowing that many of the students were not advanced students or history majors, I taught a special recitation section one week devoted exclusively to book reviews. At this special session, I went over the necessary components of a book review: historical problem, evidence, argument, and the historiographical contribution of the work. For the students that opted to write on primary sources, such as memoirs or works of Russian literature, I encouraged them to analyze how a historian might read these texts and to identify the authors’ biases and shortcomings in the sources. I allowed students to give me rough drafts of their essays, and about a third of the students in the course sent me copies in paper or by email. I read these essays with a stern critical eye and made dozens of suggestions, comments, and critiques before returning the drafts to the students. In my opinion the students crafted very good essays, especially because for many it was their first attempt at a college-level book review. Most of the suggestions I made involved clarifying or expanding specific sections of the reviews, ensuring that all of the components of a good book review were present, and cleaning up small grammar and stylistic mistakes.

In all, my work in this course ensured that the students gained the critical thinking skills needed to analyze an historical text or critique historians’ arguments, and the students gained valuable practice expressing their ideas in informed prose. I personally benefitted from serving as a Graduate Research Consultant because I learned how to assist undergraduates in interpreting evidence and analyzing arguments. When students expressed confusion about a work’s argument or an author’s intention, I had to confront my own attitude toward specific works and pose creative questions to guide the students to formulate answers independently. This process provided me with pedagogical skills necessary to teach undergraduates to critique evidence from primary sources and scholarly monographs, vital components of higher education that provide benefits well beyond an undergraduate survey course in history.

RELI/HIST 454: The Reformation and the GRC Experience

Written by Matthew W. Dougherty, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies

As I write this, I have just completed the final meetings with students for my Graduate Research Consultant assignment in Professor Jessica Boon’s course, RELI/HIST 454 “The Reformation.” Every time I serve as a GRC, I emerge from the semester grateful for the experience and with new perspectives on teaching.

One of the most satisfying parts of teaching is watching students grow in their abilities over the course of the semester. But it can be difficult for me to see that growth when I’m in the thick of things, worrying about the next lesson plan or the next set of reading questions. As a GRC, my meetings with students were separated by weeks or months over the course of the semester, and so I was able to see their development as if in time-lapse. I saw students who entered the course without any background in constructing historical arguments craft final projects that made intelligent use of primary and secondary materials. I also saw students who entered the course with a quite narrow focus on the theological issues of the Reformation develop hypotheses for their final papers that acknowledged the rich social context of those issues.

For many students, meeting with me seemed to provide a low-risk environment for developing their ideas. I met with them to critique their midterm drafts, to help them develop a project proposal for their final research papers, and to respond to drafts of their finals. In each of these meetings, students were responsible for having already done some work, but not for having completed the assignments. This structure made the meetings opportunities for students to get feedback as they developed their arguments and ideas. It is rare for college courses to be structured in a way that allows students to make mistakes, take risks, and pick themselves up again when their work doesn’t go as they had planned. Providing a GRC for this course allowed students to do just that. Even students who seemed skeptical about the role of the GRC at the beginning of the semester—after all, they’re not used to encountering an instructor who has no role in grading them—took advantage of these meetings to test new ideas and revise old ones.

Working as a GRC was a pleasure, and it certainly benefitted the students, but I also found that it was helpful for my growth as a teacher. Most of my TA experiences have been with 100- or 200-level classes, which are usually too large for major research projects to be feasible. Every time I serve as a GRC, I get the opportunity to work with students enrolled in an upper-level humanities course, which to my mind is the ideal setting to learn how to teach research skills. The students are more motivated than average—even by Carolina’s high standards— but many are not humanities majors. Thus, although they are beginners when it comes to constructing arguments from primary-source documents, they are hard-working and willing to learn. As a teacher in training, I could not ask for a better group of students to work with as I experiment with ways to teach research in the humanities.