Undergraduate Research: Georgia College a center for new ideas

Undergraduate Research: Georgia College a center for new ideas

It’s always been part of Georgia College’s DNA, as one professor said recently. But—with undergraduate research now officially dubbed a “transformative experience” and part of GC Journeys’ high-impact practices—investigative opportunities at Georgia College are gathering even more momentum.

After 23 years of its own annual research conference on campus—the university last year started a new state program called, “Posters at the Capitol.” It has published the only national book on student mentorship and, next year, will launch a new national journal of undergraduate research, the first of its kind.

Georgia College was also an early adapter of bringing the arts into research. Add this to the fact that more than 20 percent of Georgia College undergraduates participate in research from all disciplines—and a picture begins to emerge of this small, rural, public liberal arts school.

It is an image of idea-making that’s feisty and bold.

One of our strengths is the output. A lot of our strengths actually come from the output of ideas and the benefits we’ve been able to give students. We’re giving them tons of opportunities they never had before.
– Dr. Doreen Sams, professor of marketing and coordinator for MURACE

In 1998, the Boyer Commission Report on Reinventing Undergraduate Education challenged U.S. universities to permeate undergraduate education with “inquiry-driven learning opportunities.” The study found undergraduates lacked basic skills of “critical thinking, clear writing and coherent speaking” and, therefore, challenged research universities to use their expertise to “strengthen the undergraduate experience.”

Many institutions have implemented programs since then, and Sams is careful not to compare. It isn’t fair to equate small campuses to larger research schools. Some universities have more money or more administrative support. But what can be said is this: When the Boyer Commission released its 1998 report, Georgia College had already started its own campus research conference in 1997, mostly displaying undergraduate work.

“The amount of undergraduate research happening at Georgia College is unprecedented,” said Dr. Jordan Cofer, associate provost for transformative learning experiences. “Not a lot of colleges have had 23 years of an undergraduate research conference. We’re really ahead of the mark there. We are far above anything I’ve seen.”

Right now, across campus in multiple disciplines, students as early as freshman year are taking advantage of opportunities to conduct research:

  • A math student is researching the pricing of derivative securities used to buy stocks.
  • A psychology student is working on the effects of lying on memory and whether liars later come to believe their lies as truth.
  • An environmental science student is using regression analysis to estimate the length of ancient sea snakes with vertebrae found in local Kaolin mines.
  • A chemistry student is doing a salivary hormonal study to determine the effects of different socio-economic environments and the prevalence of prostate cancer in African-American males.
  • A music student is developing a review methodology for beginning band percussion books.
  • And a government student is determining whether felon disenfranchisement is used to suppress minorities from voting.

That's just skimming the surface.

Last year, 1,318 Georgia College undergraduates participated in research, Cofer said. The student research club, Undergraduate Research Circle, is creatively contributing, as well. Last fall, they hosted a research ‘roundup’ that operated like speed dating. Eleven faculty and 35 students showed up for multiple mini-meetings about research opportunities.

“It was student driven. It shows an organic demand by students. They want to be a part of these experiences. It’s neat to see this kind of energy. For a school our size, we have a pretty big footprint,” he said. “To be this residential college with close ties between faculty and students and support from our president and provost, who’ve made a priority of undergraduate research—I don’t think that just happens. It’s pretty impressive.”
– Dr. Jordan Cofer, associate provost for transformative learning experiences

MURACE is now part of the high-impact and engaged-learning experiences of GC Journeys. It started in 2012. A group of faculty members spent a year researching the idea, presented it to the Provost’s Office and were granted $100,000 to support student research and conference travel. That funding has continued. In the past eight years, MURACE has financially supported more than 2,500 students.

Last year, Sams visited all first-year GC1Y classes and started the conversation about undergraduate research. Involvement in exploratory study helps build skills in critical thinking, leadership, self-reliance, independence and reading comprehension, she said.

“If you compare where we were to where we are now,” Sams said, “then, I think we have a great story to tell. We are doing great things, and we’re looking forward to doing even greater things.”

Laura Swarner
Laura Swarner

Senior Laura Swarner, who’s double majoring in theatre and English, was recently named a semi-finalist for the 2020 Fulbright Scholarship. Her dramaturgical research and set design on theatre’s fall 2019 production of “Ballet Russes” helped garner her the attention. She also recently took first place at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, a nine-region competition held in South Carolina. She will attend the national competition in Washington D.C. in April.

Before entering college, Swarner hadn’t thought of undergraduate research as something associated with creativity.

“Doing research for theatre and, honestly, just theatre in general has helped me grow in my understanding of history and culture,” Swarner said, “It has also helped me to be able to look at facts or a theme and solve problems or build on an idea from there.”

“Georgia College prepared me by teaching me what I need to know in order to develop my ideas and present them professionally,” she said. “The theatre professors and staff at Georgia College have worked with me one-on-one to help me achieve my goals in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a larger institution.”

In December, 50 faculty members in nine departments—chemistry, physics and astronomy; communication; government and sociology; music; health and human performance; history and geography; biological and environmental sciences; English and psychology—were awarded 2020 GC Journeys/MURACE Undergraduate Research mini-grants, totaling $25,000, to promote undergraduate research on campus.

“New faculty are getting on this bandwagon,” Sams said. “It’s almost infectious. So, we’re seeing more students doing better quality work going to impressive conferences. That’s not to say they didn’t before, but the numbers are increasing.”