The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday May 20th

Undergraduate research provides proof of proficiency for students

Undergraduate research is on the rise in the United States, as more students seek out opportunities to answer questions that interest them.

Elizabeth Ambos, executive officer for the Council on Undergraduate Research, said the field of undergraduate research is a growing and rapidly evolving aspect of both curricular and experiential learning. Undergraduate research is a good, concrete example of a student’s proficiency with a topic, she said. 

“In some fields, undergraduate research is the dominant thing that employers and graduate schools are looking for,” Ambos said. 

The two primary types of undergraduate research are extracurricular — faculty-mentored, one-on-one experiences — and curricular — research experiences built into course curriculums, Ambos said. 

The CUR also fosters its own structure of undergraduate research: the scaffolding model. Ambos said this model is a developmental process that lays a solid foundation for students to begin initiating their own research projects.

“In the first year a student comes on campus, they should have a foundational experience in undergraduate research,” she said. “The goal is that by junior or senior year, the student is functioning more as an independent scholar.”

At UNC, the Office for Undergraduate Research facilitates both curricular and extracurricular undergraduate research. 

Troy Blackburn, associate dean and director of the Office for Undergraduate Research, said extracurricular and independent research is more popular, but there are also research-intensive courses offered.

“We have course-based undergraduate research experiences that teach students how to conduct research while determining results,” he said. “The more common approach is usually to find a professor and volunteer to help that person with their research.”

Gabi Stein, a junior computer science major, took a similar approach when trying to get into undergraduate research. Stein has worked with UNC Project-China through the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health for the past year and a half. She looks at how crowdsourcing data relates to public health in Southern China.

Stein said the best part about undergraduate research is that it allows students to ask and answer questions that are meaningful and interesting to them. 

She said it’s important for students to be able to communicate their research and share what they’ve learned with other students.

“You can’t be afraid to ask questions or reach out to professors,” she said. “I’ve learned how to ask the right questions and get the right answers, which has ultimately made me a better thinker.”

Blackburn said undergraduate research helps students learn two major skills: how to make evidence-based decisions and use critical thinking and how to consume new information and learn new things. 

The OUR is a great resource for students interested in conducting undergraduate research, especially with helping to fund projects, Stein said.

Blackburn said the OUR recorded over 1,000 projects being completed last year — not including various unrecorded volunteer research with faculty members.

“I would encourage everyone to at least try an undergraduate research project during their time at UNC,” he said. “You might find out that you absolutely hate it — but you could also discover that you love it.”


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