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Undergraduate Research Can Bridge the Divide Between Faculty Teaching and Research Priorities

In a climate with strained university budgets, a dichotomy is often formed between teaching and research, with these two priorities pitted against each other and portrayed as in direct conflict. While there is undoubtedly a struggle in finding an appropriate balance for university faculty to divide their time between teaching and research capacities – particularly at U15 schools – undergraduate research can bridge this divide between university priorities.

Many universities are home to world-class faculty conducting ground-breaking research, but these are often professors inaccessible to students. With increasing portions of teaching responsibilities being taken on by adjuncts, whose own research capacity is limited by job instability and a lack of resources, the often-cited notion of the ‘scholar in the classroom’ is largely untrue. Students are not necessarily being lectured by those researchers who perhaps have the most scholarly experience to share.

With 26% of Canadian undergraduate students going on to complete a Masters – especially with higher portions at U15 schools (37% of Queen’s undergraduates) – undergraduate education must begin to equip students with these research skills. If the goal of the university is to prepare students for future success, they cannot do so without building these capacities in undergraduate students.

Several steps need to be taken at the course, institutional, and provincial level to advance undergraduate research. First and foremost at the institutional level, we need to foster the notion of the undergraduate scholar. Universities must take the research capacities of undergraduate students seriously. This can be done many ways, but even just starting by changing the language surrounding undergraduate researchers. Departments and institutions honour the work of their faculty researchers, dedicating publicity and resources to their efforts. Why are we not doing the same with our students? Students who complete research projects in class are seen as simply having completed a project, but when we begin to refer to them as undergraduate researchers, this signals a shift in attitude. Language is powerful, and this subtle change in rhetoric can foster a much more supportive environment to student researchers, signaling how seriously we take their contributions.

Research skills can be built and developed from the beginning of the undergraduate career. These skills need to be developed at the course level, scaffolded from first year to fourth year, perhaps with a cumulative project as these skills are strengthened. We need to utilize and apply these skills by including undergraduates in research in several capacities. They can be involved in faculty research as research assistants, and they can work in research centers on campus, bridging the teaching-research dichotomy. Even simply addressing perceived barriers, such as competitiveness, or lack of information about existing positions or courses can provide students with greater opportunities to foster inquiry and conduct undergraduate research. This hands-on, real-world learning will help students develop these skills at all points of their education, making these opportunities accessible to all students.

A much more systemic issue, but provincially, universities need sufficient operating budgets to allow for greater faculty renewal. This commitment must also take place within the institution. Undergraduate research often requires time and resource-intensive mentoring and supervision. Thesis supervision, for example, is an outstanding opportunity for students to apply the research skills they have gathered throughout their undergraduate degree to produce original work to contribute to their field. This can only take place if there is enough faculty with the capacity to take on this supervisor role, despite a widespread lack of recognition for these contributions. With strong competition in obtaining a supervisor in many schools and programs, this is an issue hugely inhibiting students from taking on capstone research projects. Faculty mentorship can bridge the divide between teaching and research, because this emphasis on relationship building allows students to directly benefit and learn from their supervisor’s research work.

Canadian universities, particularly U15 universities, are well-poised to establish undergraduate research as a flagship pedagogy, and better prepare their students for future success. This isn’t going to happen by accident. To establish universities as places where inquiry and research is encouraged and fostered, substantial commitments need to be made by institutions and the province. If we dedicate the time and resources needed, we can educate a generation of students who are equipped with the research and inquiry skills to find new and unique solutions to problems in a rapidly changing society.

Leah Brockie
OUSA Steering Committee Member

Academic Affairs Commissioner, Queen’s AMS