New KU program to create research experiences for undergrads

John Augusto is director of Kansas University's Center for Undergraduate Research. The center was created in 2012 to help bring research to undergraduate classrooms. Photo courtesy of KU.

Anne Hedeman is the Judith Harris Murphy Distinguished Professor of Art History at Kansas University. Photo courtesy of KU.

This spring Kansas University will test a new program meant to bring graduate-style research experiences to undergraduate classrooms.

Launched by the KU Center for Undergraduate Research, the pilot program will pair graduate students with faculty members teaching undergraduate classes. The graduate students will act as “graduate research consultants” helping students to develop and execute research projects that generate new knowledge, as opposed to the typical college term paper.

John Augusto, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research, said the idea was borrowed from the University of North Carolina.

Both the KU and UNC models pay graduate students to coach and advise undergraduates over the course of a semester. At KU, the graduate research consultants will get paid $500 for a total of 30 hours during the semester. Nine graduate students will take part in the pilot program and work with classes that average about 30 undergraduate students, Augusto said.

The graduate consultants will work one-on-one or in small groups with undergrads, but, unlike teaching assistants, they won’t grade or evaluate work.

The goal is to engage undergraduates and help them develop intellectual curiosity in the classroom by putting them next to graduate students driven by their own research interests. Augusto said the program is also meant to tackle a major objective in the university’s strategic plan: increasing experiential learning opportunities for undergrads.

What types of projects students work on will depend on the courses. The classes taking part in the pilot cover everything from linguistics to British literature to cognitive neuroscience. In some courses the research projects might be more guided by faculty, especially in highly specialized fields, Augusto said. In other cases students may have more freedom to pick their own research questions and design the project.

Anne Hedeman, a KU distinguished professor of art history, said students often come to her classes with their own areas of interest and expertise, whether they are artists themselves or study a foreign language that makes them interested in a specific artistic tradition.

This spring Hedeman will teach a class in medieval manuscripts that will take part in the new program. She hopes it will help students “find something that will let them take control.” Students will do that by deciding on a “question they’re really curious about” and working with the graduate consultant to find an answer, Hedeman said. At the end of the semester, the class will hold a research fare where students can present their findings to faculty, administrators and others.

Over the course of the semester, Augusto’s office will be collecting data and feedback about the program to try to measure its effectiveness. From there, they can look at expanding the program throughout campus. Augusto’s hopes are high even for the program’s first, experimental semester.

“Quite frankly the impact is pretty substantial,” Augusto said. “This really allows (undergraduates) to see, ‘Oh, wow, I can do this.'”