The Graduate Research Consultant Program From Two Perspectives: Part One, Instructor

Hello!  My name is Dr. Steven Buzinski.  I’m a social psychologist and the Director of Undergraduate Research in the Department of Psychology.  I am also a lecturer and in that capacity I became interested in the Office of Undergraduate Research’s Graduate Research Consultant program.  For approximately four years now my colleague, Dr. Scott Roberts (Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park), and I have taught courses on the psychology of attitude change & persuasion featuring a large-scale civic engagement project.  The project, which we direct at our respective institutions, involves student teams identifying a social problem (e.g., binge drinking), empirically supporting its deleterious effects, creating a persuasive public service announcement video (which is placed on YouTube©), marketing it to as wide of an audience as possible, evaluating its effectiveness in changing attitudes and/or behaviors, and defending the entire campaign to a board of social psychologists.  If you are interested in viewing a selection of the PSA videos, please click on the following for videos created by UNC students or for videos created by UMD students.

After years of intensive work creating, structuring, and refining the project with Dr. Roberts, I assumed that we were near a point of diminishing returns.  The project was consistently producing efficacious videos, student reviews noted its impact on their self- and academic-efficacy, and administrators approved of the civic engagement component.  Was there really much else that we could do to improve on the project?  I was not sure, and the reason that I initially applied for a GRC was simply to have another skilled researcher on board to manage the project, as is. 

What my GRC, Kristjen Lundberg, turned out to be anything but a project manager.  Rather, she was a strong stimulus for improvement.  Kristjen approached the project with fresh eyes, a host of outstanding ideas, and the motivation to put them into effect.  Her enthusiasm reinvigorated my own approach.  The parts of the project that were previously good enough no longer were, and together we mapped out how to make the project more rigorous, intellectually and experientially more demanding yet more time efficient.  What resulted was a series of “project phase worksheets” (with accompanying mini-lectures) that scaffold the development of each team’s project.  Students are currently spending more time and energy on what they need to and less on what they do not.  I am more excited every new semester to start these projects, our students are even more engrossed in their campaigns, and I credit these improvements entirely to the presence, determination, and skill of my GRC Kristjen.  If you are reading this blog then it is likely because you are interested in, or at least curious about, the GRC program.  Take the leap.  It is well worth it…for you and your students.  

I would like to say that I have benefited Kristjen with my guidance and experience, but I know that she has done more for me than I could have possibly done in return.  So, I will let her tell you about her experience in her own words in Part Two. 

GRC Alum Profile: Timothy Diette

Dr. Timothy Diette ’05 is an Associate Professor of Economics at Washington and Lee University. His specialty is Economics of Education. Tim served as a Graduate Research Consultant in Dr. Rachel Willis’s First Year Seminar AMST 064: Access to Work and recently talked with us about that experience.

Tim notes that the undergraduates in this research-exposure course were a little surprised about what would be expected of them, but excited at the idea of doing less-traditional assignments. Tim spoke to students at several points throughout the course on topics such as how to put together a research paper, how to identify appropriate background readings, how to frame a research question, how to get data to try to answer the question, how to present the results of a project in a coherent way, and how to summarize a bigger project in a small amount of time.

One of the important pedagogical practices Tim developed while he served as a GRC is the compelling need to understand where the students are coming from and what level of research skills they do or don’t already have. Of course there are varying levels of skills and ability within the students in any class, so he was conscious of trying to add value to the experience for each of them.

Tim describes Rachel Willis as an “amazing mentor,” and expressed his gratitude to her for giving him the opportunity to spend time with the students and providing him with feedback and suggestions about his own pedagogy. DietteTim

Tim’s experience as a GRC helped instill in him the value of trying to include student research in every course in whatever ways are appropriate for the course. No matter which course it is, he finds a way to package in a research experience. He affirmed the importance of guiding students through the research process to help them learn how to think about questions, to learn what other people have said about the topic, and to discover how they can create new knowledge. He creates checkpoints throughout his courses so he is able to identify early if students are struggling and need extra assistance. This also distributes the work through the semester, so students are not able to wait until the last minute to think about their project. Working on the project over a longer period of time produces more robust, richer results for Tim’s students. It also, Tim observes, comes closer to mimicking the research process in which faculty actually engage. He finds that “students buzz with excitement when they’re going to be able to ask a question and generate knowledge.” Tim’s former students tell him that the opportunity to conduct research is what they remember most about his course.

Tim recommends that current graduate students seek out the opportunity to serve as a GRC, stating that “it is an excellent opportunity to grow as a teacher. In addition, it will give you valuable experience that is valued on the job market at institutions that hold undergraduate education in high regard.” The advice he offers to new GRCs is this: “Be sure to challenge students, but also provide structured opportunities for them to seek out assistance throughout the research process. Help them see the full road ahead as they embark on their project.”

Ball Games, Music, Dance and My American Woman Writers course

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

I recently finished teaching a Summer Session II course, ENGL/WMST 446: American Woman Authors. I teach the course as a contemporary multicultural woman writers course, and it’s one of my favorite courses to teach. This was my first time teaching the course with a Graduate Research Consultant.

Our class met Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00–8:35 p.m. Summer school is a challenge to teach because of the compressed nature of the course and that is especially true when the students are conducting research. My students were expected to design a research question that enabled them to perform a comparative literary analysis on two of the texts we read. I was intentional about creating assignments that served as building blocks for their research project. They were required to write Critical Reflections on two of the texts we read during the course, and I encouraged them to think about using at least one of these as a way to brainstorm about their paper topic. They were also required to write a source summary and analysis, so I knew they were locating some of their secondary sources in time to work effectively with them.

My GRC, Heath Sledge, met with each student individually at least once. In addition, she facilitated two workshops for the students. The first, early on in the semester, helped them think about strategies for narrowing a broad research topic into a focused research question (Heath plans to blog about this workshop later). The second was a peer review workshop, where students worked in small groups to read and provide constructive feedback on each other’s papers. It was exciting to see the students practicing active reading and listening practices and to see them deeply engaged with their peer’s drafts.

I always teach discussion-based classes and they are usually very lively. Because our class met for 2½ hours, I was especially conscious of varying my discussion strategies. We incorporated write-arounds (I used a hybrid version of this and this), I borrowed Jennifer Ho’s ball game exercise, and in a couple of classes the students generated our initial discussion questions. In addition, students could choose to use one of their Critical Reflections to create an original artistic creation of some kind that represented their interpretation of a text. Students were required to present their creation to the class and then write a brief reflection about their process. After one brave student broke the ice, several students took advantage of this option. We saw various kinds of drawings, paintings and collages, heard an original song with guitar accompaniment as well as an original piano composition, and watched a classical Indian dance — all of which represented a thoughtful interpretation of our texts and helped us understand the readings in a different way.

The course concluded with the students presenting their research projects to each other (and me). In addition to continuing to cement our learning community through sharing their discoveries, this also required the students to think about audience and rhetorical genre – they couldn’t simply read their paper aloud but had to think about what information to present and how. Some simply talked about portions of their project, some used powerpoint slides to structure their presentation, some incorporated video clips, some used the whiteboard to outline important points, etc.

I wrote earlier about how my own thoughts had shifted about teaching since I came to work at OUR; it was very satisfying to be able to put those thoughts into practice and to see generally stronger research projects as a result.

Comic Books and Graphic Novels: Undergraduate Research in American Studies

Written by Michelle Robinson, Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies

Picture this:

You are an entry-level marketing assistant at Disney, the parent company of Marvel Comics.

Your assignment is to write brief marketing blurbs for publications  featuring the first “out” gay superhero, Northstar, who debuted in Marvel Comic’s Uncanny X-men #120 (1979) and publicly “came out” in Alpha Flight #106 (1992). An old adage among comics creators reminds us that “every comic is someone’s first comic.” Keep this in mind when crafting your sales solicitations. Your plot description should intrigue the reader while not giving away too much. Your solicitation should appeal to both new and familiar readers, queer-interest and non-queer-interest demographics.

These were the instructions that graduate research consultant Ben Bolling handed out to students in the American Studies course “LGBTQ Fiction and Film from 1950-present” one day in February 2013. Some of these students had never touched a comic book before. At this point, they may not have been aware that they were investigating how the circumstances of cultural production and a narrative technique defined broadly as “seriality” effect representations of queer identities. And they were only beginning to discover that Ben Bolling, an advanced graduate student in the English and Comparative Literature Department researching the ethics of serial historiography for his dissertation, is also a bona fide comics “geek.” Ben had supplied us with a sampling of his much-coveted archive of Marvel comics spanning the early 1980s to the 2010s. Students had perused these for the first time on paper reserves in the Undergraduate Library before entering the classroom. Then, divided into groups, they tried their hand at sales solicitations, collaborating on “pitches” while they examined representational shifts over time and assembled character descriptions. Here are a few of their preliminary efforts:

Alpha Flight #8 (1983)
John Byrne (W) Andy Yanchus (C) Michael Higgins (L)
32 Pages…$0.60
NO MORE MR. NICE GUY. After a crushing blow, Northstar refuses to sit on the sidelines while everyone else takes ACTION. With help from AURORA and NEMESIS, Northstar embarks on his QUEST FOR VENGEANCE. Does it come at a price?

UNCANNY X-MEN #414 (2002)
Chuck Austin (W) • Sean Phillips (A) • Steve Uy (C)
32 PGS…$2.25
Arrogant ex-Olympian JEAN-PAUL may seem like an unwilling candidate to teach at Professor X’s Institute of Higher Learning. But when he joins the rest of the team to investigate an EXPLOSIVE burst of mutant energy, will the plight of a young mutant soften his steely heart?

Were students gaining “marketable” skills? Were they revising assumptions about what constitutes a legitimate text for literary study? Were they learning to work with primary source materials in one of several research-exposure exercises? Undertaking a collaborative investigation of lgbtq representations in the world of the X-Men? Having studied fiction and film, were they formulating hybrid analytical strategies, ones that could adequately account for visual and verbal representations, overlapping narratives and seriality? Exercising both critical and creative faculties? The point worth pressing is that we had an exceptional opportunity to expand the parameters of the syllabus and to research new materials because of the unique expertise of our GRC, who designed and supervised an activity I could never have entertained on my own. Ben followed this interactive module with a lecture that laid out the theoretical framework for his dissertation project and showcased his original research on Northstar’s legacy as a “LGBTIQ issues character” during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and beyond.* Students praised his “engaging, down-to-earth teaching style,” and each one of them provided Ben with feedback on his “comics bootcamp.”

Ben’s crash-course in reading comics proved especially useful when we encountered the comic book’s close kin, the graphic novel, later in the term. Following our analysis and discussion of Alison Bechdel’s celebrated Fun Home, the American Studies Department made it possible for me to invite an out-of-the-ordinary guest lecturer: Rio Aubry Taylor, an amazing multidisciplinary artist and proprietor of Light Riot Productions who teaches at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. Rio provided hands-on instruction, further familiarizing students with page composition, character design, and narrative structure in comics, and brainstorming with them how they might use graphic narration to tell personal stories. As a culminating activity for the course, I assigned a personal graphic essay, a sort of “intellectual autobiography” that related to our seminar experience.

Meshell Sturgis, a UNC senior enrolled in the course, had this to say about the experience:

What I loved about this course was the unexpected creative component that Ben brought when he taught our class and we explored the representations of LGBTQ superheroes in comics. I had never considered the realm of comics and graphic narratives when I thought about LGBTQ life and representation before this class. As an English major, I had also never considered writing comics as a possible venture for myself, which is why I am so glad that I ended up taking the class. Not only did Ben introduce a new and fascinating topic to the course, but Professor Robinson also seized the opportunity to take the class further into the subject. At first, I wasn’t too sure about where we would end up, but as we continued to revisit the concepts Ben had introduced earlier in the class, and we began reading Fun Home, I realized that in no way had we gone off track from our original focus.   If anything, I feel like Ben gave us a special lens that allowed the class, and specifically me, to attempt looking at the history of the representations of LGBTQ folk, but also to view comics as a witty and insightful literary form.

As a lesbian of color, this class spoke directly to me. It provided an academic space for me to encounter the ways in which LGBTQ folk have been misrepresented in the past, but it also affirmed for me, that no matter these misrepresentations, we have come a long way, and as long as I proudly represent myself, I cannot go wrong. It was my first course taught by a woman of color (my second course taught by a professor of color) in the whole four years I spent at Carolina. To see someone, considering all of the professors I’ve had, who “looks like me” really was a big deal. Moreover, as best stated by Professor Robinson above, the course challenged us to think both critically and creatively. With a minor in Creative Writing, I am very aware that creative expression is so much a part of me. Often in class, I find myself lost in the analysis and detached from the subjects and assignments, but in this course, I found myself not just learning material, but also learning how to apply the facts and concepts to my personal life. The only thing that frustrated me about the course was that I took it my second semester of my senior year. When Ben was teaching our class, he asked us about some recent comments that had been made on the local radio news regarding humanities courses like women’s and gender studies. Here I was, sitting in a class that was talking about queer folk and creative literary expression through comics, thinking this is what Carolina is about, this is what I have been searching for, and Ben points out that there are some who don’t believe classes like these are useful.

I am so excited that the course is going to continue being offered because I know that there are more students who can gain from the exposure, who can learn from the content, and who can grow from the process that I experienced last spring. It truly was a nice way to end my four years at Carolina. I have even continued writing comics since the final exam for the course, and feel very fortunate to have taken away so much from the course and its instructors. It makes me smile to know that more students are going to walk away with just as much if not more.

*See Ben Bolling, “The U.S. HIV/AIDS Crisis and the Negotiation of Queer Identity in Superhero Comics, or, Is Northstar Still a Fairy?”, Comic Books and American Cultural History: An Anthology, ed. Matthew Pustz (NY: Continuum, 2012): 202-219.

Undergraduate Research in Linguistics: Slang and Reality TV

Written by Rachel Norman, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

This past spring semester I had the chance to work as a Graduate Research Consultant for Dr. Connie Eble’s ENGL 315 course: English in the USA.  The class is offered through the English Department, but is grounded in linguistics—a topic I will most likely not have a chance to teach here at UNC, but that is central to my area of research.  Having the opportunity to watch Dr. Eble develop a course from a beginning, nascent idea, through the drafting of the syllabus, all the way to designing the final exam has been enormously instructive for me, and is one of the boons of the GRC program that is often overlooked. 

We designed the course around four major themes: American Dictionaries and Notions of Correctness; Regional and Social Dialects; American Slang; and American English in Spoken and Written Texts.  Students wrote two papers, one of which had to include original research.  As the GRC, the most challenging aspect of my role was helping students to develop their ideas on language into questions that could become research projects.  The students often felt that they weren’t capable of performing their own research and started out with questions that were very “safe.”  However, after a bit of encouragement and a few brainstorming sessions, the ideas that they came up with were strikingly original and thought provoking. Ultimately, the topics chosen by students were wide-ranging and fascinating, from the role of dictionaries in Scrabble games to mining linguistic corpora to answer questions about vocabulary.

The aspect of the course that I am perhaps most proud of, though, was the end of semester group presentations.  Dr. Eble and I came up with an idea part way through the semester, and turned it over to the students to see what they would do with it.  We placed them in groups of five and asked them to analyze a current reality television show using all of the sociolinguistic tools they had learned throughout the course.  We chose reality television for two reasons.  We liked the “crafted” nature of the shows, and the ways in which producers intentionally use language stereotypes for effect.  We wanted students to ask the questions: Why is this successful?  What does that success say about the covertly racist/classist/sexist, beliefs held by the audience?  How is the language being used to both tap into and exploit those beliefs?  What does it say about dialect and notions of prestige?  The second reason for choosing popular reality television shows was the students’ own interest in them.  Asking students to examine something they interact with regularly, but most likely do not think about critically, seemed like an excellent way to challenge students’ notions about language.  We allowed the class to choose which shows they would most like to work on, and after a vote we decided on Jersey Shore, Breaking Amish, Swamp People, Cake Boss, Storage Wars, and American Pickers. 

Dr. Eble and I were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the class’s presentations.  Most groups offered well-balanced discussions, combining summaries of existing research on their dialects with an original linguistic analysis of their show.  Many of them took the discussions in directions that I would never have thought of, such as analyzing interpersonal communication between characters to present an argument for individuals as “archetypes” within the narrative of the show, rather than focusing on a specific dialect.

Watching the projects come together and getting to talk to the students about the direction they were deciding to take their research was a rewarding experience, and I was so impressed by the success of their presentations that I have begun adapting the assignment to be a unit project in a future ENGL105 Composition course.  Based on my experience with this course, I would argue that the GRC program goes beyond just enriching undergraduate research experiences—it also plays a pivotal role in the formation of future teachers.

HIST 391: Medieval Russia and Undergraduate Research

Written by Aaron Hale-Dorrell, GRC and graduate student in the Department of History

Undergraduate history seminars offer students at Carolina an opportunity for independent historical research with the support needed to succeed in that endeavor. These courses provide a framework in which students can move from passive consumers to active producers of history while focusing on a particular era or region. During the 2013 spring semester, I served as a Graduate Research Consultant for HIST 391, Medieval Russia: Icons, Mongols, and Mayhem in Moscow. Professor Louise McReynolds’s course provided students a framework in which to familiarize themselves with the basic practices of academic history: surveying the issues, determining a question, examining previous historians’ approaches to the topic, identifying sources, analyzing them, and composing a piece explaining the work and its conclusions.

During the course’s early meetings, Professor McReynolds introduced students to the range of Russia’s history to the early modern period, including the first Kievan state, the subsequent period of Mongol domination, and Muscovy’s unification of the Russian princedoms. Our discussions opened to students a range of topics including Orthodoxy, culture, and politics. We discussed both a textbook and selected primary sources, searching these overarching themes for topics and approaches suited to the interests of each student individually. Students became acquainted with the major historiographic issues concerning Medieval and Early Modern Russia. They examined icons, chronicles, and ecclesiastical texts in translation, providing the students, most of whom had little familiarity with the subjects and sources at hand, with a foundation on which to build an original and insightful research project. Some found their interest in the influence of the Mongols on Russian military development, while others delved into the socially constructed gender norms exemplified in the lives of Orthodox saints and the icons that conveyed them to the lay audience.

During this process, I found particularly rewarding the opportunity to question students’ interests and assumptions, aiding them in sharpening their ideas into a manageable and meaningful topic. Once students selected a topic in consultation with Professor McReynolds, they began to consider further sources and appropriate historical approaches to analyzing them. During this process, they met on a one-on-one basis first with Professor McReynolds and then with me. By the time they met with me, most had made substantial progress on research and many were on the verge of beginning the writing process. In these meetings, I pushed students toward strategies for organizing research notes, structuring a short research paper, the process of writing, and related concerns.

The students produced impressive results in the final stages of the course. After several weeks away devoted to research and writing, students returned to the classroom to give presentations on the course of their research and their findings. Each of these presentations demonstrated clear progress and understanding of the research process. Many were of high quality and several might have been at home in a graduate seminar.

The experience serving as a GRC sparked my interest in overseeing undergraduate research; I look forward to designing and teaching a similar course at some point in the future. The undergraduate research seminar format provided a forum for teaching in which students grappled with the issues on their own but with supervision, gaining deeper understanding not only of the material and subjects at hand, but also of the skills and tools that historians employ to take a critical approach to the world past and present.

Better Research through Uncreative Writing

By Martin L. Johnson, Lecturer in the Departments of English and American Studies and GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature Lauren Du Graf

A few years ago, Kenneth Goldsmith, who teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania, made a provocative revelation in The Chronicle of Higher Education. For several years, he’s taught a course in “uncreative writing,” where students are rewarded for the bad behaviors—plagiarism, rewriting Wikipedia articles, and purchasing term papers online—that in other course could result in expulsion from the university.

Although Goldsmith justifies this class by referencing conceptual art and the crushing ubiquity of writing in our digital era, he also notes that his students find his course liberating. As he puts it, “suddenly what [students have] surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.”

Film and Culture (English 143) is a writing-intensive course designed to introduce students to film and cultural studies. As a film historian, Martin encourages his students to develop skills as researchers, something that they can use across the curriculum, and, later, in their professional lives. And yet, it is difficult to teach and model student research, particularly at the introductory level. Students usually begin and end their research on the Google home page, and by the time they realize that cursory online research won’t be enough, they’re too deep into midterms and finals to correct course.

Which is why, when designing an early semester assignment for Film and Culture, Martin thought of Goldsmith. Working with Lauren, a Graduate Research Consultant, Martin designed an assignment that would ask the students to do research, but not interpret the text. The assignment, in full, was as follows:

Each film screened in this class has been reviewed dozens, if not hundreds, of times by scholars, professional critics, bloggers, and fans. For this assignment, select a single film from the second section of the course, and compose a compendium review that includes quotations from at least one scholar, one professional critic, one blogger, and one fan. As a “Zagat(a restaurant guide)-style review, your task is to compile quotes from other reviews that best reflect your own view of the film. Please limit your compiled review to 1000 words, and use footnotes to cite your sources (MLA or Chicago style preferred).

As Lauren, who worked with the students to help them find appropriate sources, learned, this proved to be a deceptively difficult assignment. On the one hand, students wanted to find the best way to express their own opinion about a film. On the other hand, locating this opinion in the words of others could be challenging. Because the class dealt with contemporary cinema, students had to sort through hundreds of reviews on Internet sites like Rotten Tomatoes, and dozens more on online databases accessed through the UNC library’s home page.

In addition, students learned how to distinguish between sources—too often, students do not know how to distinguish a scholarly, peer-reviewed article from a professionally written review—which they otherwise might not have learned until it was too late. In some cases, there was a paucity of scholarly accounts of a film, which forced students to look more widely and deeply for these sources than they otherwise might. Students used article databases from UNC Library for the first time, realizing that not every article could be found using Google.

Lauren was instrumental in helping students who thought this would be an “easy no-brainer assignment” learn how to complete the task once they realized it was more difficult than they had assumed. She found that the assignment was an approachable way to get students into research, as they didn’t get overwhelmed by both writing and research requirements at the same time.

Although this assignment was created in the spirit of Goldsmith’s call for “uncreative writing,” its intent was not to strike at the heart of academic life. Rather, this assignment allowed students to experience the difficulty of original research early in the semester, so when it came time for their final papers they knew just what to expect.

Working with a GRC-supported SPAN 376 class

Written by Dr Patrícia Amaral in the Department of Romance Languages

This Spring, students in SPAN 376 (Phonetics and Phonology of Spanish) investigated the differences between native and non-native competence in Spanish by doing a phonetic analysis of speech samples. First, they recorded two Spanish words of their choice pronounced by a native speaker of Spanish and also by themselves. Then, with the help of a Graduate Research Consultant, they analyzed the samples using Praat, an open-source software for acoustic analysis. In this class, I encourage students to gain hands-on experience of phonetic analysis because this allows them both to grasp the linguistic concepts and to connect academic training with their real-life experiences. I want them to use the tools provided in class to gain a better understanding of their own experience acquiring a second language (in this case, Spanish) and of the experiences of non-native speakers of English around them. They presented the results of this class project at the OUR Celebration in the form of 4 joint posters.* I fully enjoyed the enthusiasm they put in this project and the shared sense of discovery.

I decided to find out more about the individual experiences of the students, who have kindly agreed to give some feedback about their research project. Here is their perspective in the first person:

“I really liked completing this project for our class.  I had never learned anything about linguistics, phonemes, VOT, all of it was completely new to me and I found it all fascinating.  I have done research before.  It was similar to this project because it was also a class project, but it was comparing heart rate levels when subjected to different kinds of music: in essence a completely different kind of project.  I don’t think I would have ever learned or understood voice onset time (VOT) if we had not done this research project.  That knowledge has helped me try to better my pronunciation and obtain better fluency of the Spanish language.” (Nicolas Merritt, Exercise and Sports Science and Hispanic Linguistics)

“I really enjoyed this project and found it very interesting.  This being my first time researching, I not only enjoyed seeing class concepts realized in everyday life, but I also learned a lot about the researching process.  It was very neat to see exactly how, or with what specific sounds, English speakers differ from native Spanish speakers in order to learn how to improve our pronunciation; however, it was also very interesting to hear and see the various dialectal differences among native Spanish speakers for the various sounds we discussed in class.  While we learned a lot during lecture, this research was a very important part of the class as it allowed us to actually go out into the community and study the Spanish language spoken around us, hearing the various phonetic and phonological concepts learned in class and gaining a better understanding of how to improve our own pronunciation of the Spanish language.  I had never done such an in-depth pronunciation comparison with software such as Praat, but based on this experience, I plan to continue using this software to study the Spanish language and improve my pronunciation.”  (Rachel Cianfichi, Romance Languages and Communication Studies)

“Before the OUR project, I had done research before, but not in such a hands-on way.  In other classes I have taken that had a research component, we did all of the research individually, without collaborating with other students.  This research was carried out in such a way that we searched for scholarly journal articles to support a topic of our choosing and then wrote a final paper summarizing what we discovered about the topic.  With the project we did in Spanish 376 for OUR, we got to use a recording software (Praat) that allowed us to record ourselves and a native speaker and make a direct comparison.  This is different from other research I had done in that we actively participated in generating data instead of basing our project on someone else’s findings.  The poster that I worked on specifically dealt with the difference in the Voice Onset Time (VOT) for native and non-native Spanish speakers when pronouncing voiceless plosive consonants (p, t, and k).  We had discussed this in class, noting that the longer VOTs for non-native speakers are due to aspiration, which I learned through the project means openness of the vocal cords.  When we discussed this in class, I thought I understood what aspiration meant, but seeing it plainly laid out on our poster with spectrograms to demonstrate the concept helped me understand the concept fully.”  (Sam Hodges, Romance Languages and Global Studies)

“This was my first research experience. I enjoyed using Praat to analyze the spectrograms of the different voice samples. Before the project, I wasn’t sure what research in linguistics entailed, but I was pleasantly surprised with our work. I am excited to continue with my linguistics classes and I hope that I will have other opportunities for research in Hispanic linguistics while I’m at Carolina.” (Katie Gutt, Romance Languages and Latin American Studies)

Our GRC, Justin Pinta, offered his perspective as well:

“This was the first time I had been involved in undergraduate research as a GRC and I found it to be an incredibly enriching experience. The students were highly interested in their research and working with them was, I believe, mutually satisfying. They were able to learn the basics of phonetic analysis and I was able to get some valuable experience with regards to teaching and explaining such material. As a Spanish TA during my time here at UNC, I found this class to be a nice change of pace (given its linguistic content) as well as a perfect fit for me personally. I have fortunately been picked to again serve as GRC for this class during summer session 1, and I eagerly look forward to repeating the experience!” (Justin Pinta, M.A. student in Linguistics, GRC)


*Note:  One of the group posters received a Best Poster award at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research.




Combinatorics: Undergraduate Research in a First Year Seminar

Written by Michael Schuster, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Mathematics

I was the Graduate Research Consultant this Spring for Ivan Cherednik’s combinatorics First Year Seminar.  Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics focused on counting discrete systems, and also studying their properties as they get large or have restrictions applied to them. An example of a discrete system would be the internet: it consists of many separate computers connected by cable and telephone lines. Combinatorics is hugely important in both pure and applied mathematics, but besides that, it is largely accessible to students new to college-level math, making it a great subject for a seminar.

My primary role as a GRC was to guide the students through their final project.  The core of each project was to solve one or more problems based on a common subject or theme in combinatorics.  These weren’t simple exercises: all the projects required a long-term effort, and practically all were really new and had the potential to result in posters or publications.  Guiding the students through how to break down a problem into smaller, more manageable, pieces was one of the most challenging (and rewarding) parts of my job.  I also didn’t always have all the answers, which was very different from my previous roles as a tutor and instructor, where I usually did know the answer to any question that might come up.  I had to rely more on my experience as a researcher to guide them in exploring and eventually solving their problems.

I think one of the most successful projects involved counting ‘perfect covers’ of dominoes.  On the physics side, it is the theory of dimers with various applications. The idea is simple: take a chess board, for instance, and try to cover every square with blank dominoes.  If you succeed, you have a ‘perfect’ cover of the chess board, perfect meaning that you’ve covered every square exactly once.  The project asked the students to count all of the possible perfect covers for chess boards of different dimensions.  For example: a 1 by 6 chess board has 1 perfect cover, while a 2 by 3 chess board has 3.  In order to count these covers, the students not only needed to use material from class, but they also needed to learn some linear algebra, which is normally taught at the 500-level at UNC!  The students solved an involved case of boards of size 4 by n (n is any number) and confirmed directly some theoretical results; the relations of this approach to other methods are not fully understood.

Another project studied the Fibonacci-type sequences of numbers which Ivan expects are related to tree growth; in contrast to, say, population growth of rabbits, the “birth rate” of a tree should be inversely proportional to its age (or its square). This could be potentially an important development and, according to what the students reported, it could also be a new approach. They wrote programs to analyze the sequences numerically, then used that information to make conjectures and prove results. They then researched existing models of tree growth and compared them to their own work.

One project was actually classical, an involved project about the divisibility of Fibonacci numbers by prime numbers. The students managed to prove (with some of Ivan’s and my help) that p divides fif  p±1 divides n, where  f1,f2,… =1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,… are Fibonacci numbers, p=2,3,7,11 are prime numbers (5 must be excluded). This requires using finite fields and Galois Theory with a direct link to the Gauss quadratic reciprocity law, which is generally beyond material covered in graduate courses in algebra.  Finite fields were also used in another exciting project aimed at magic squares and Sudoku puzzles constructed from the field with 9 elements; these students ended up finding some very interesting results.  These projects are closely connected to cryptography, a branch of computer science devoted to computer security.

Every one of the groups did a fantastic job.  At the end of the semester, they put all of their work into a paper, and gave a presentation to the entire class detailing their work.  It was a great experience helping these students with their projects this semester.

Undergraduate Research in a Geography Classroom

Written by Hélène Ducros, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Geography

In the Spring of 2013, I had the opportunity to be a Graduate Research Consultant (GRC) for a geography research-based course on Global Migrations, Local Impacts: Urbanization and Migration in the United States led by Dr. Nina Martin. In this course, students were asked to produce a journal-quality research article on a topic of their choice related to the class themes. Instead of working individually, they were to work in groups. This set-up allowed for interesting combinations of interests and approaches to the subject of the class. My role was to assist them in the research process, from initial brainstorming to the finished product, and anywhere along the way. Initially, students were rather anxious at the daunting task, but once they jumped into it, their resourcefulness, dynamism, and enthusiasm took over. They quickly learned to deal with group dynamics, assign tasks to each group member, and were very creative at crafting research topics that drew on each group member’s specific skills and disciplinary training to create original projects that covered a wide span of subjects. The research project was an opportunity for students to engage directly with people in the field, here or elsewhere, depending on the topics. They really got a taste of what research is, from the conception of a project, to the literature review, and finally fieldwork and data analysis. From the effects of the London Olympics on East End immigrant communities to the Charro Days Festival across the US-Mexican border, the perception of Burmese refugees in Chapel Hill/Carrboro on ESL courses, the effect of food deserts on migrants in Durham, or a study of leisure and family status among Latin American migrants in the Triangle, the topics covered illustrate the diversity of interests our students have.

I was very enriched by my GRC experience guiding the students through the process of becoming experts on their respective topics. My initial task was to alleviate the anxiety they may be experiencing and show them how exciting doing research is. Once we were able to narrow down their topic, students checked in with me when they needed advice on what kind of sources to seek out and how to best obtain them, when they were looking for leads for their literature review, or straining to organize the material they gathered to make it into a manageable and interesting piece, and finally when they needed advice on how to present the finished product. As much as they learned from me, I also learned from them and their creative attitude in overcoming the challenges that came up in a comprehensive research endeavor conducted over just a few months. It was indeed very rewarding and inspiring to see them transition from being consumers of knowledge to being producers of knowledge.

For Dr. Martin, “The ambition of some of the projects was amazing. One group conducted 100 interviews in Spanish over the course of 3 weekends as a random sample. Another did 25 qualitative interviews. While students don’t always have the tools to analyze their data to a great extent (e.g. they don’t have a lot of knowledge of sampling methods or statistical analysis or qualitative data analysis), the work clearly encouraged them to want to pursue research further to gain and/or refine these tools.”

At the end of the semester, we asked our students to evaluate their experience working with a GRC:

I was skeptical about the whole research assignment because I did not think we students would be able to come up with valuable ideas that appealed to professionals like Dr. Martin or Hélène. However, they made the study interesting enough for us to have some flexibility in the subject and the methods. I still cannot believe we went through the whole process successfully. This definitely gives me some confidence for future projects.”

The GRC “was very supportive and helpful.  She made us feel like she was genuinely concerned with helping us reach our greatest potential.”

She really helped us gain confidence in our topic.”

The GRC was very helpful and informative, especially when it came to organizing our research.”

The GRC “was a pleasure to work with.  I can tell that she really enjoys her subject area.  She was encouraging and open to working with our ideas.  She was a great asset. So glad to have worked with her and gained insights from her about the research process.”