Undergraduate research transforms a department: one university’s story

In this post, Dr. Michael Janusa of Stephen F. Austin State University explains how embedding a research experience into the undergraduate curriculum transformed student outcomes and the faculty experience. If your department is considering requiring research of your undergraduate students, this post is a must read…


SFA Chemistry & Biochemistry

Our Vision

The Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at Stephen F. Austin State University strives to educate students with a “personal touch”. The department has a straightforward and important mission – to educate, train, and prepare students for what ultimately will become their life’s work. Once a student graduates from the chemistry department, their career will most likely involve identifying a problem, analyzing a problem, solving a problem, and/or communicating conclusions. Conducting a research project is a valuable preparation in many ways, since research is where many students begin to understand and apply the chemical concepts they have studied. And for these reasons, all of our majors now conduct a research project before they graduate.  The research activities are structured around student learning rather than on individual faculty accomplishments, and incorporate hands-on experience with state-of-the-art instrumentation. 

But things weren’t always this way…

…all of our majors now conduct a research project before they graduate.  The research activities are structured around student learning…

Overcoming Barriers

Major changes to a program do not dramatically net results overnight. Over the span of more than a decade, our department grew from 22 majors in 2004 to 137 majors in 2018. In the midst of this growth, several barriers were impeding our departmental vision for undergraduate research. These barriers are very common to many departments on campuses across the nation: high teaching loads (time), lack of modern instrumentation (resources), and inadequate facilities (space). Our department addressed these barriers one-by-one and by 2010, we had lower teaching loads (approximately 12 contact hrs.), a research lab for each faculty member ($8M renovation), and the instrumentation needed to conduct research (approximately $1.5M). During the next 8 years, our department  focused its energies on achieving our vision for an undergraduate research experience for all  majors.

The choice to make research a requirement of the undergraduate curriculum was based on the literature, which indicated that engaging students in research helps in retention. 

An Undergraduate Research Experience in the Curriculum

The transformation of the past eight years began by adopting a rigorous, faculty-mentored Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) as part of the curriculum. Each faculty member in the department maintains a research group that ranges from four to eight undergraduate students, and all department faculty participate in the URE as a requirement for tenure and promotion.

The choice to make research a requirement of the undergraduate curriculum was based on the literature, which indicated that engaging students in research helps in retention. The implementation of the URE went through several phases of refinement guided by assessment; the results of which are the following required curricular elements:

  • An Introductory to Research (CHE 275) course at the beginning of the sophomore year
  • 1 year of research in the curriculum with a faculty advisor
  • Semester research progress reports
  • A capstone research seminar course

The research experience is more than just working on a research project for a semester, instead it is process that develops student skills. It all starts with CHE 275 in the sophomore year, where topics such as safety, ethics, statistical analysis, lab notebook skills, library resources/literature review, and writing scientific reports are addressed. By the end of this course, the student selects a research advisor and submits a research proposal for their project. While the project is ongoing, the student submits a progress report or research paper to the professor and department for review at the end of each semester. In addition to developing the student’s writing skills, the progress reports keep them on track for presenting a senior capstone research seminar before graduation.

In the Capstone Research Seminar (CHE 470), students write a manuscript and present a twenty-minute oral seminar to the department (faculty and students) and alumni who have agreed to serve as evaluators for the senior presentations. Each faculty member mentors his or her research students in drafting and revising the manuscript and the presentation.

Last Saturday, April 29, I attended the spring research symposium and awards ceremony of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at the invitation of my grandson, a graduating senior. Allow me to congratulate you for the fine job that your faculty and staff do for these students. As a retired Senior Scientist of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, I have been involved in many academic scientific programs across the country. I sincerely believe that SFA offers an excellent experience. The care, interest and enthusiasm of both students and faculty were outstanding. ~SFA grandparent

Assessing Impact 

Since the inception of the URE in 2011, five major impacts have been observed in the department.

Improved retention and graduation rates

First, we have had a significant increase in the retention of majors and the number of graduates over the last few years. The department feels these changes have helped to engage their students and is one of the reasons why the number of graduates each year has more than doubled, the enrollments in senior level courses are high, and retention numbers of majors are over 80% for the past three years. These retention rates are reflected in the enrollment of our upper level courses. We are experiencing historic enrollment highs for upper level courses, which is leading to higher graduation numbers. The department had two sections of each upper level lab for the first time in fall 2018. It should be noted that the increase in retention and graduation has occurred even though the demographics of the department include 50-60% first generation college students and students from underrepresented minority groups.

Improved Post-graduate Student Outcomes.

Second, students develop confidence after the successful completion of the URE such that approximately 60% continue their education in masters, doctoral, and professional programs. The department believes the research experience has contributed to graduates pursuing advanced degrees and has actually increased the enrollment in the SFA chemistry MS program (MS in Natural Sciences with a concentration in chemistry) from one to typically eight students, mostly SFA students.

Peer-reviewed Publications and Presentations

Third, undergraduates are co-author(s) of peer-reviewed publications and present their research findings in local, regional, and national meetings, where they get to network and expand career opportunities. Typically, we have three to five undergraduates as co-authors on a peer-reviewed publication and approximately fifteen to twenty students presenting their research at conferences each year. Recently, one professor submitted a Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) patent application to the United States Patent and Trademark Office that involved only undergraduate students in the project. Two manuscripts related to the invention have been submitted and published since the patent application has been filed.

Faculty Development

Fourth, the URE assists faculty not only in promotion and tenure but also helps establish internal as well as external collaborations. Faculty members in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry have developed several collaborations within the department and across campus with forestry, biology, geology, and computer science. One faculty member has established an external collaboration with researchers from the Department of Medical Biology at the UiT Artic University of Norway on screening small-molecule inhibitors of certain bacterial proteins implicated in several inflammatory diseases that has resulted in co-authored peer-reviewed publications.

Improved Student Learning Outcomes

Lastly, faculty assessment of the students’ research papers and seminars typically range between 79-95% achievement for the benchmarks in empirical, quantitative, critical thinking, and communication (written & oral) objectives. The quality of senior capstone projects and papers have improved tremendously as compared to what faculty observed prior to implementing the URE program.

Being at a different university, I have now seen first hand the differences between colleges and states when it comes to a chemistry degree, and I realize now how blessed I was (and still am) to have earned both my BS and MSNS from SFA.

I know I did (maybe more) of my fair share arguing and pouting about the workload before, but now I see how crucial all of it was.

It’s helped me tremendously here – from discussing new research topics at length to simply doing well in a graduate course. It’s been so valuable. ~recent SFA Chemistry graduate

Reflections

Participating in undergraduate research projects helps our students to become more proficient and gives them an edge – to think on their feet, ask questions, tackle a problem and apply their knowledge to solve that problem. Over a decade ago, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry cast a vision to educate students both inside and outside the classroom through research, and the fruits of this faculty labor are now illustrated by the quality of education our students are obtaining.


Dr. Michael A. Janusa has been Professor and Chair at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX for 17 years and mentored over 30 undergraduate students in research during this time. Dr. Janusa’s research focuses on the environmental science areas of water, soil, and air quality involving metals and anions.

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