Students at the University of Texas at Austin discover research opportunities they never knew existed.

by / July 5, 2007 0

Research universities consider undergraduate research an important steppingstone in the college experience.

Despite the emphasis placed on discovery and applied knowledge through research, it's not always easy for new undergraduate students to find research opportunities, or faculty willing to oversee research projects, especially at a large campus like the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.

In 1998, a report by the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, challenged universities to teach research-based learning as the foundation for undergraduate learning.

Universities nationwide responded to the challenge, creating programs and opportunities to enhance research opportunities available to undergraduate students. UT Austin was one of them.

"I think undergraduate research has been happening at big research universities like this forever, but it was really the top-notch 1 or 2 percent of students who were participating," said Lynda Gonzales, undergraduate research coordinator at UT Austin. "These students were usually hand-picked by the faculty members out of the classes the faculty were teaching."

Undergraduate students needed easier access to information on research opportunities, Gonzales said. "Students can go around to the different schools and colleges, talk to professors and look on the individual department Web sites, but that's very labor-intensive."

To get more information to a greater number of students, UT Austin needed a centralized database of research opportunities that would link students and faculty interested in a particular area of study.

In 2003, the provost's office supported the creation of Eureka, a Web-based application providing a single place for students to find research opportunities, as well as the faculty willing to support them.

"The group we're trying to reach is a much larger group than that top 1 or 2 percent," Gonzales said. "They are a group of bright, enthusiastic students who don't quite know how to get connected with the faculty to do research because the process of getting involved is not very transparent - Eureka has made that more transparent."


A Gold Mine

UT Austin is one of the top research universities in the United States, with the fifth largest single-campus enrollment in the nation as of fall 2006. "I don't think many undergraduates choose UT because of the research - they're choosing for other reasons - but once they're here, we want them to take advantage of the fact that they're here with world-class faculty," Gonzales said. "We really believe meeting the faculty enhances the undergraduate experience."

To help bridge the information gap between undergraduate students, faculty and research, Eureka consists of three main components: a research guide on how to get started and answers to basic questions; a database; and human coordinators to answer questions and enable effective communication.

The research guide provides a starting point for students and includes information on research in general - how to begin and what is expected of students once they decide to get involved. The guide is also a good source for students wanting to get their research information published, or who would like to get an award for their work.

"The research guide answers all of the anticipated questions a student would have if they walked into my office," Gonzales said.

Eureka's second component, its searchable database, has 2,300-plus faculty profiles and allows students to plug in a word - like "cancer" - to find out which faculty members are working on the subject across all disciplines.

Eureka's final component is the people organizing the program. Throughout the Eureka site, students can click on a question mark that generates an e-mail to Gonzales or Sarah Simmons, her counterpart in the College of Natural Sciences. Gonzales or Simmons then respond to the e-mails and set up individual appointments for students to come in and ask questions or

receive guidance.


Panning for Solutions

Eureka is a PHP application with a MySQL database in the background. "From a technical standpoint, it's good code and a fine application, but it's not cutting-edge or breaking new ground," said David Cook, associate director of Information Technology Services at UT Austin. "Eureka uses an open source tool set, so the additional software costs for something like this are essentially zero because it's relying on open source, or community-source development tools and databases."

The hardware and software needed to create Eureka was free or already in use, Cook said. "It's running on a cluster of servers that do many things," he said, "so the cost is really just a function of the time it took to create it."

In 2000, the provost's office created Connexus, or Connections in Undergraduate Studies, a set of academic programs that cross disciplines and even colleges, in response to the Boyer Commission report. As a continuation, the Bridging Disciplines Programs (BDPs) 19-credit-hour undergraduate certificate programs organized around disciplinary themes were introduced in 2002. The programs require students to complete at least two research experiences.

With the increased emphasis on research, the need for a Web-based, centralized directory became apparent.

In fall 2002, the vice provost met with a representative from the BDPs and key players across campus who worked with undergraduates through research, including the College of Natural Sciences, College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts and the vice president for research, to discuss the possibility of an informative research opportunity database. Everybody thought it was a fantastic idea, Gonzales said, but nobody stepped up and said they could devote time and money to such a large project.

By spring 2003, the provost's office announced it was going to push the project and put the staff time behind it, providing technical support as well. From May through September, those involved gathered and organized information; contacted people across campus, imported data and entered faculty profiles and information into the database manually. Eureka went live in fall 2003.

Gonzales now has an undergraduate assistant who works year-round to maintain the database. "That's the real challenge of this site: keeping the faculty profiles current, which takes about five to 10 hours of somebody's time every week, every semester."

For Cook, success behind an application like Eureka is less about the technology and more about the content it holds. Gonzales and Simmons are the glue behind it all, he said.

"In many cases people think, â??Oh, great! There's a need for this. We're going to build it, and they will come.' But we often underestimate the role of the people who are going to seed the content in an application like this.

"I think these content-managers, or evangelists, are what really set an application like this apart from others," he continued. "I would not try to do something like this without that component."


Eureka Moment

Stephen Myers is a senior government student at UT Austin. As a freshman, Myers never thought of research as a possibility for him, or for any student in a nonscience, nonlaboratory field of study; however, he was amazed at the variety of research possibilities and topics available to students on Eureka.

"Eureka is a research powerhouse," Myers said. "There's nothing easier for a student, especially in a large university, than to have some centralized way of finding different opportunities, and I think Eureka provides that for UT students."

Although Myers found his research project - examining whether congressional parties have become more polarized over the years - through a professor last year, he said Eureka opened his eyes to other possibilities, including financial support for his project.

"It's all about making that individual effort to get connected with your professors," Myers said, adding that the professors who sign up through Eureka are seeking students to participate in research projects, which makes them more approachable. Myers said he received constant guidance from Sean Theriault, a professor in the Government Department whose research focuses on the U.S. Congress and specifically on party polarization.

"Research is crucial at top research institutions," Theriault said. "Eureka allows us to find each other. I place an ad and if students are interested, they contact me."

"Frequently I hear from students all over the campus - undergraduates in government know about me and my research team - but very few folks from outside government who, nonetheless, are interested and quite knowledgeable about government know about the research group," Theriault said. "Eureka gives them an avenue to find out about me and me, them."

Theriault also gives the students who research with him the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., and see the system work firsthand. "Basically," he said, "we put our book-derived theories to the test with actual politicians and staffers."

In fact, Theriault's research culminated in a finished manuscript on party polarization that he said would only be about 25 percent finished if he did not have the help of undergraduate researchers. Their efforts helped snag a conditional publishing contract with Cambridge University Press.

"Research has completed my academic experience," Myers said. "It's a way to think on your own - independent inquiry, we call it. You're given a task and you come up with a way to achieve it. You have a hypothesis, and through research, you come to a conclusion.

"Participating in research has sharpened my skills in so many ways - critical thinking, writing," he continued. "It made everything more â??real life' and applicable to what I'm doing."

Myers plans to remain at UT Austin an extra year to chair the Senate of College Councils - the student government organization that represents all students in academic affairs - and he said undergraduate research is one of the biggest pushes for the upcoming academic year. "We're going to be working really closely with Eureka, not to expand the program, but to raise awareness of it, so that first- and second-year students can really dive in, explore and get something going for themselves early on."

Sherry Watkins Contributing Writer