Trendsetters: How Georgia College is leading the way in undergraduate research   

Trendsetters: How Georgia College is leading the way in undergraduate research   

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inding connections between music used by American presidential campaigns to gain insights into candidate identities. 
 
Conducting dramaturgical research on an early 20th century Russian ballet company.  
 
Determining if solar panels could improve battery performance in golf carts.  
 
These are a sampling of research done by undergraduates at Georgia College. Students are forging the path in undergraduate research. During 2019-2020, more than 2,300 Georgia College students participated in undergraduate research.  
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At Georgia College, [undergraduate research] started out as a completely faculty-driven initiative, - Dr. Jordan Cofer
 “What’s really interesting about undergraduate research at Georgia College, maybe opposed to other schools, is that at Georgia College it started out as a completely faculty-driven initiative,” said Dr. Jordan Cofer, associate provost for Transformative Learning Experiences. “Basically, these faculty recognize that there was already a lot of undergraduate research happening and they wanted to figure out what was the best way to capitalize on that and organize it.” 
 
Dr. Doreen Sams, faculty coordinator for Mentored Undergraduate Research & Creative Endeavors (MURACE), was one faculty member that initiated undergraduate research at Georgia College. Sams was part of that faculty circle in 2011 that got together to research, plan and write a proposal to submit to the Provost’s Office that outlined the importance of undergraduate research. That group was 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. 
 
“I saw so much value in it for students, and, even back then, I had been doing research with undergraduates,” said Sams. “For me, it was kind of a no-brainer.” 
 
Since then, undergraduate research has continued to expand and garner national recognition. The university was recently named a finalist for the Council on Undergraduate Research Campus-Wide Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishments (AURA). According to the CUR website, this award recognizes higher education institutions that have successfully implemented the characteristics of excellence, have devised exemplary programs to provide high-quality research experiences to undergraduates and have evaluated the success of these programs. 
 
Trax on the Trail is a research project helmed by Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, associate professor of music.
Trax on the Trail is a research project helmed by Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, associate professor of music.
“The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) is well-known when it comes to undergraduate research. That’s the major organization everyone looks to, so this sort of national recognition is important,” Cofer said. 
 
Along with being named a finalist by CUR, a recent study also showed how GC measures up to other universities when it comes to offering experiences for students to become problem solvers, leaders and put their ideas into action. 
 
“The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is a national survey which is administered by almost every college and university in the United States,” said Cofer. “It’s designed to collect data from first-year and senior students to report the quality of the undergraduate experience to faculty, administrators, researchers and others.” 
 
The survey compares students from across the country based on several pillars. Georgia College first-year students showed no significant difference when compared to other universities. However, Georgia College seniors exceeded national peers in a variety of categories including “Collaborative Learning,” “Student-Faculty Interaction,” “Supportive Environment,” “Reflective & Integrated Learning” and “Discussions with Diverse Others.”  
 
One reason undergraduate research has become more important than ever, is because of its status as one of five transformative experiences that students can complete as part of the GC Journey Program. The GC Journeys Program encourages students to take advantage of five inside- and outside-the-classroom transformative experiences during their time at Georgia College. Cofer said the GC Journeys Program combined with the university’s liberal arts mission, sets the university up to offer a unique, interdisciplinary approach to undergraduate research.  
 
One example of this is the research of Laura Swarner, who double majored in theatre and English, and was 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 took first place at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, a nine-region competition held in South Carolina.  
 
Laura Swarner
Laura Swarner
“I feel very honored and excited and, honestly, just super grateful for the opportunity and support that I had throughout the process,” Swarner said. “Georgia College prepared me by teaching me what I need to know in order to develop my ideas and present them professionally.” 
 
Georgia College also offers extensive opportunities for students to get involved. One of these is the student organization Undergraduate Research Circle. This semester, the group organized a Research Roundtable that allowed students to talk to faculty about their research and be exposed to many disciplines at once.  
 
“The idea is that it would be connecting students who are interested in doing research with faculty who are doing projects. So the setup was kind of a speed dating model where they go from table to table and the faculty do a three-minute pitch about a research project,” Cofer said.  
 
Another opportunity the university provides is Posters at the Capitol, created in 2018, where students from across the state of Georgia share their research at the Georgia State Capitol. Cofer said last year, the university had six students accepted, which represented majors from chemistry, music therapy, physics and psychology. They were six of 54 students from 15 colleges and universities statewide. The annual event recently went virtual for their third year.  
 
“Students get to present for state senators, state representatives, lobbyists and any of the public that might be there that day,” Cofer said. “When a student gets accepted, it has to be an outstanding project. It’s a student that is polished and done multiple presentations.”  
 
The university also launched a national undergraduate research journal in spring 2020. The first volume of which is set to be published in winter 2021. Sams has also helped write a handbook for mentoring undergraduate research students, which is used across the world.  
The amount of undergraduate research happening at Georgia College is unprecedented - Jordan Cofer
 
“The amount of undergraduate research happening at Georgia College is unprecedented,” said Cofer. “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.” 
 
Cofer said the benefits of research go far beyond that one project. Instead, it gives students a sense of resilience and grit, while also teaching them critical thinking skills. 
 
“You have this tangible project at the end of the research that you can present to people. But you don’t just have that research knowledge, you now have the resilience of going through those steps,” said Cofer. “That’s what is going to set you apart. That’s what’s going to make our students stand out.”