Who Gets to be a Researcher?

3 small plants in biodegradable pots

One of my favorite days of the academic year is Undergraduate Research Day. The Honors College and the Libraries collaborate to showcase undergraduate student research done through various scholarship programs, experiential learning programs, and independent research with faculty mentors. Our main library’s second and third floors are filled with research posters from students in every discipline imaginable, and the students themselves are bouncing with enthusiasm and excitement. They’re eager to tell people about their research and are able to speak about their work with clarity and precision with fellow scholars. They also offer compelling narratives to a more general audience who might not be familiar with the conventions of the research in that discipline.

April 14 marked the 2022 Undergraduate Research Day, and it was so exciting to be back in person after 2 years of a virtual event. As I listened to a student talk about their work researching Spanish language newspapers in the U.S. during the 1918 influenza pandemic, I wondered what it would take to expand this kind of excitement and enthusiasm for research to a wider group of students. There were about 200 presenters this year, at a school that boasts an undergraduate population of over 37,000 students. Yes, there may be some students doing research who weren’t able to present or weren’t far enough along in their research to do so, and yes, there are students engaging in research in their classes, too. But there is something about making research public, having a conversation about what you’ve learned and what you still want to learn, that seems to foster a sense of enthusiasm and pride.

I would love for all of our undergraduate students to be able to proudly share their scholarly or creative output and say, “I did that!” It might not all be groundbreaking or revolutionary, but shouldn’t the work of novice researchers be celebrated, too? At my last place of work there was a day where all students in first-year seminars could share their coursework and/or research, projects, papers, etc. with the entire campus community. It was a way to celebrate the work of first-semester, first-year students, who all displayed a commitment to what they’d learned and excitement in sharing it with others. It was a way of planting the seed of research, investigation, curiosity, and knowledge building in these students, that they could then carry with them all the way to their senior thesis project.

How can we develop opportunities to recreate the kind of enthusiasm and curiosity that was present at that first-year student event and at Undergraduate Research Day? I’m interested in extending those experiences beyond a small, select group of students to a wider university population. I’ve sometimes heard the argument that some students just aren’t “ready” for research. This may or may not be accurate depending on the context, but what are we even doing if we aren’t entering teaching relationships with students assuming that they are intellectually curious? They might not have the scholarly background of an experienced researcher, but they may possess the same inquisitive spirit and excitement to learn. So where is their Undergraduate Research Day? How do we celebrate their work and progress? Are they not researchers as first-year students, writing their first synthesis paper or lab report? Who decides whose research is celebrated? In creating opportunities to do this we might then pave a pathway for those students to continue to research throughout their years in higher education and afterward.

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