July 5, 2007 By Sherry Watkins
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
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