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January 11, 2007

Undergrad research: Michigan's experience could influence Pitt

Sandra Gregerman drew a wide range of listeners from across the University community at her November Teaching Excellence lecture in the School of Arts and Sciences. In addition, her research and experiences as the University of Michigan’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) director has sparked new dialogue and ideas on the Pitt campus.

Pitt chemistry professor Joe Grabowski, who also serves as A&S director of undergraduate research, said he had heard Gregerman speak elsewhere and was anxious to bring her to Pittsburgh to share her knowledge. “We wanted that message and that wealth of data Sandy is sitting on to get to Pitt faculty,” said Grabowski, noting that although Michigan’s UROP and Pitt’s less-formal undergraduate research programs differ in many ways, there is much to be gained from what Gregerman has learned since she became director of Michigan’s program in 1992.

Because Pitt is a research university, there are numerous opportunities for interested students to collaborate with professors in their work. One formal source for connecting faculty and students is via A&S’s Office of Experiential Learning. OEL’s mission is broader than simply matching students with research projects, said OEL director Margaret Heely. Pitt’s program is broader than Michigan’s because it offers service projects, teaching opportunities and internships in addition to research opportunities.

Grabowski said, “Students can rotate and get different experiences,” or, for students uninterested in research, there are other opportunities available to enhance their undergraduate experience.

Gregerman’s program was created to improve academic success and retention among historically underrepresented student populations and has since become a recruiting tool at Michigan. Pitt’s program remains focused on offering students learning opportunities outside the classroom and is not as heavily touted to prospective students. It’s not that Pitt’s program isn’t mentioned to potential enrollees, Grabowski said, it’s just that the program has a different aim — to streamline connections between faculty and undergraduates wanting a research experience.

Grabowski acknowledged that undergraduate research “was pretty well established individually and in departments,” prior to the establishment of OEL. The goal in formalizing programs was to get the opportunities better advertised and more broadly available to students.

Grabowski noted Gregerman’s emphasis on the importance of engaging students very early in their college career and in developing faculty-student connections as crucial for enhancing academic success.

OEL’s First Experiences in Research, targeted at second-semester freshmen, has met the University’s needs, Grabowski said, both by promoting undergraduate research and providing opportunities for freshmen. Noting that first-semester freshmen already have a lot on their plate, targeting freshmen in spring has worked well at Pitt. Using the freshman studies program as a lead-in to First Experiences creates a good sequence for new students, he said.

Because Pitt’s program is young — First Experiences is in its third year — resources have been spent on growing the program rather than spending time on assessments, he said, adding that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel by repeating research Gregerman has already done.

Grabowski said Gregerman’s work also shows that sophomores are most impacted by the undergraduate research experience, something Pitt needs to do more of, he said, adding that undergraduate researchers at Pitt tend to be juniors or seniors. “Sandy’s work is really pointing out we need to move to sophomores,” he said.

“We’re constantly looking at what we’re doing and what we could do better,” he added.

Among the considerations are the development of a student data club that would bring students together to learn about each others’ research, similar to Gregerman’s research scholars program at Michigan or the Pitt Honors College’s Brackenridge Scholars program. Although the networking would be beneficial, negatives such as students’ perpetual time crunch also need to be considered before launching such a program, he said.

Another possible addition would be an invitation-only seminar program for undergraduates in which students would be invited to speak to their peers about their area of expertise. “It would be for undergraduates, by undergraduates,” Grabowski said, and might be similar to programs designed for faculty in which peers from other universities are invited to speak about their work.

Grabowski said he would like to have the financial resources to assess students who participate in OEL programs rather than rely on anecdotal information.

“Is it effective? I think it is, but I think it would be nice to have some real data,” he said.

“If students are more engaged, having a better time, over Thanksgiving dinner telling Grandma about their research experience rather than the Detroit Lions, we’re ahead of the game,” he said.

Among the immediate benefits of Gregerman’s visit, Grabowski said, was that it brought together people on campus who do undergraduate research outside of Arts and Sciences. “Arts and Sciences has lots of students but limited research opportunities. OEL’s challenge is to reach out to schools such as public health and medicine that have lots of research opportunities, but fewer students,” Grabowski said.

Alaine M. Allen, director of Pitt’s EXCEL diversity initiative program for undergraduate engineering students, said Gregerman’s talk offered plenty of food for thought.

“A lot of the information that Dr. Gregerman shared simply reaffirmed the importance of undergraduate research, specifically for students traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Allen said.

The EXCEL program offers the mentoring program for excellence in engineering during the academic year and the summer research internship for Pitt engineering students and the pre-PhD scholars program, offered in summer for non-Pitt engineering undergrads.

EXCEL first connected with OEL last summer, resulting in some combined activities: Summer program participants living on campus were housed in Pennsylvania Hall with other summer research students, attended OEL ethics forums and participated in OEL social activities. “In the future, we hope to establish more connections between the various faculty and staff members who are sponsoring summer research experiences for undergraduate students,” Allen said.

Among the ideas Allen said she plans to explore from Gregerman’s lecture are alternate compensation options such as course credit or work-study placement for program participants. She said learning about Michigan’s residential program was beneficial to the plans already in the works to establish an engineering research living-learning community at Pitt next fall.

Another who attended Gregerman’s talk was Dianne Colbert of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Hillman Cancer Center. The center is among a number of regional cancer centers nationwide that participate in a National Cancer Institute program aimed at including more minorities and students of color in cancer research, she said. UPCI partners with students at Hampton University, a historically black school based in Virginia. Junior-level biology majors participate in a cancer bioinformatics class delivered via teleconference. They also take a lab course on site at Hampton. Each summer, some rising seniors spend 10-12 weeks at the Hillman Cancer Center conducting independent research under the supervision of a research mentor. At the end of the summer, they present their research and submit an abstract to a national biomedical research conference for minority students.

Colbert said she has been considering offering the bioinformatics class and lab to sophomores instead of juniors. “It would afford them the opportunity to spend more time doing the research they learn to do during their two courses,” she said.

Gregerman’s emphasis on engaging students early in their academic career resonated with Colbert, who looks to students even younger than those Gregerman targets.

Colbert said that she’s interested in attracting local high school students to research in order to create a pipeline into the University’s programs.

“Since we have here such a magnificent health careers arena, students in Pittsburgh public schools and other districts in southwestern Pennsylvania should begin to learn the tools of the trade and the way in which we conduct research and collect data,” she said, adding that perhaps even middle schoolers aren’t too young.

Colbert noted that the proposed “Pittsburgh Promise,” which would fund higher education for students from the Pittsburgh public schools, coupled with additional research opportunities could work together to bring budding young researchers into the pipeline — starting by getting students engaged at the basic education level and encouraging them by guaranteeing the money they need to pursue higher education.

“There’s no reason why students at the middle school and high school level cannot be learning and become part of the pipeline to the University of Pittsburgh, and not just in cancer research,” she said.

Judy Wieber, coordinator of Pitt’s Bioengineering & Bioinformatics Summer Institute (BBSI) attended Gregerman’s talk with a specific interest in UROP’s focus on underrepresented students, its structure and Gregerman’s survey results.

The National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation BBSI program runs for 10 weeks and offers opportunities in computational biology research to rising juniors, seniors and students entering their first two years of graduate school. Underrepresented students are encouraged to apply to the program, which accepts 11 undergraduates and two graduate students.

Gregerman’s lecture has fomented some changes in the BBSI program and cemented some new contacts for Wieber, she said.

“We had a pretty good idea already that the nature of the student’s peer group, integration of academic and social activities, and opportunities to make coursework relevant were important to students,” Wieber said. “However, we now know from Dr. Gregerman’s research that an additional success factor is the quality and quantity of interactions with faculty outside the classroom. We will be modifying our BBSI program in 2007 by adding more opportunities for interactions with faculty outside the classroom.”

In addition, Wieber said she plans to keep in touch with Grabowski, Allen and Colbert and noted that she plans to meet with them later this semester to discuss their respective programs.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 9

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