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Commission discusses role of research at Tech

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 07 - October 6, 1994

The Commission on Research continued on Wednesday to discuss how to improve undergraduate students' understanding of the role of research.

Jim Knight, director of the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, reported, "Students appreciate and want faculty members to bring research into the classroom."

When asked, during focus groups, whether they are aware of the research in their disciplines, most students were not, Knight said. "When they did hear about research, they wanted to know more. They were not aware of the research accomplishments of outstanding faculty members at Virginia Tech. We have missed the boat" in terms of sharing research accomplishments, Knight said. "We can make textbooks come alive and let them know what is happening on this campus right now."

Knight also said he would like to see enhanced research opportunities for undergraduates, such as through a competitive grant program. "The research versus teaching discussion is pointless," he said.

Janet Sawyers, director of the Academy of Teaching Excellence, shared an example of a successful effort. "A team of faculty members working on creativity invited undergraduate students to an open forum. Fifteen signed up and pursued the work over several semesters. They helped build measurements and instruments. The students appreciated being involved conceptually--rather than just in recording data. Four of the students went on to graduate school."

Sawyers also suggested placing faculty members' books and reprints of articles by faculty members in areas where students and parents wait; and, in class, helping students identify what is happening across campus. "No one benefits from separating research and teaching."

Janet Johnson asked about the survey question indicating more students either didn't want a researcher as a teacher or didn't care, than wanted a researcher as a teacher. Knight suggested the perception may be that researchers are inaccessible, rather than that they are people who bring excitement to classes.

Johnson asked what role the commission can play in the effort to increase appreciation of research.

Knight emphasized the importance of recognizing and rewarding people who do a good job, the need to continuously say that teaching and research are complimentary missions, and the need to avoid. a competitive approach.

Jim Wightman pointed out that some departments require an undergraduate thesis. "That would be a tremendous load in a large department, but it should be revisited." He also advocated undergraduate mailboxes in the departments. "We have mailboxes for faculty, staff and graduate students, but it's very difficult to get in touch with undergraduates. How do you get the word out about opportunities to do research?"

Ann McNabb suggested providing faculty members with materials such as slides and information about research that would interest students. "Most faculty members would talk about interesting and intriguing research because they know students would relate."

Knight said the CEUT now has the program formerly offered by the LRC where illustrated comments by faculty members are captured on video. "There's potential funding for that."

He suggested that faculty members apply research methodology to improve teaching. "In our research, we don't plod along and keep doing the same thing."

"What about educating students about what a research university is in a direct fashion?" asked Len Peters. "Is CEUT doing that?"

Knight said, "There should be some exposure, such as during orientation, but it really needs to fall within the department, where there would be greater interest from the student."

Peters said, "It is also important for engineering students to know that we do research in sociology."

Johnson added, "It's valuable to show the interdisciplinary tie. For example, the way (Roe-Hoan) Yoon cleans coal is similar to the way coffee is decaffeinated."

Wightman said he "jumped past the philosophical level of telling students how Einstein did research" and made it personal. "I spent half a lecture telling students what I do in research."

Others agreed that approach is valid.

The point was also made that the concept of scholarship and a community of scholars should be explained.

In other business, Peters distributed Policy Memorandum 123, dated March 6, 1992, which defines special research-faculty appointments, and handed out a draft for discussion for expanding the research title series so that it is parallel with the tenure-track structure.

Assistant research professors, associate research professors, and research professors would be supported on soft money, and would not have tenure. Promotion would be based on their research, but they could direct graduate students, chair a committee, be a principal investigator, and sit in on faculty meetings.

Johnson asked members to discuss the issue with their colleagues.