Marielle Silvio has a lot on her plate. She’s finishing her degree in secondary education with a concentration in mathematics, as well as a minor in physics.
She’s also part of a research group that solved original mathematics problems involving the Fibonacci sequence, published articles in academic journals, and gave a presentation to a chapter of the Mathematical Association of America.
These weren’t classroom activities. Instead, they were part of Silvio’s undergraduate research at Cal U.
“Undergraduate research is as much work, if not more, than a normal class,” she says. “The difference is that there’s no set time in your schedule to complete it, so you must manage your time in order to work on research while meeting other course deadlines.”
Research like Silvio’s helps to supplement classroom education. It’s been identified as a “high-impact practice” that boosts critical thinking skills, promotes innovation and helps college students prepare for a career.
That’s why Cal U has committed to expanding both opportunities and funding for undergraduate research projects.
New research center
Until now, research projects typically grew out of course lectures, and professors helped to guide students through the process. Because most undergraduates don’t know how to initiate a research project on their own, the University has created a center to promote opportunities and help to provide funding.
The new Cal U Center for Undergraduate Research is intended to raise awareness across all disciplines, facilitate research experiences for students and celebrate the achievements of students and their mentors.
Leading the center is Dr. Gregg Gould, a longtime member of the advisory board for the University Honors Program and a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry and Physics since 1991.
“We had several outstanding, highly qualified applicants for the director’s position, and the search committee had some difficulty selecting one person for the job,” says Dr. Stan Komacek, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research.
“Professor Gould presented a clear vision of how this center could develop and what our faculty and students might achieve, given the opportunity and resources.”
The idea for a new research center stemmed from a two-year program funded by the National Science Foundation to integrate undergraduate research into Pennsylvania’s public universities.
“I have always been attracted to the research side of being a professor, but I could never figure out how to balance it effectively with teaching,” Gould says.
“I am really excited to be able to focus my attention on promoting undergraduate research and opening up a world of possibilities for our students.”
The research center is in its early stages, but undergraduate research has long been a part of the Cal U experience. For example, during his senior year Nick Patton ’13 conducted an “Investigation of Inorganic Species in the Oregon Hollow Wetlands in Washington County, Pa.”
His research showed those agricultural fertilizers and repositories of road salt and other chemicals led to moderate levels of unnatural elements in the wetlands, but posed no concern for humans or the environment.
The project won an award at the statewide PASSHE Undergraduate Research Conference, and Patton’s combination of academic and research experience helped him to land an internship at engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald, where he is working to monitor and restore streams affected by longwall coal mining.
“Having the chance to conduct research taught me the applications of my class work in everyday life, along with providing exposure to new instrumentation and field approaches,” Patton says.
Anthropology students Fuad Abdulkader and Casey Bricker dug into a separate project, exploring whether items buried in graves could help to determine the gender of unidentified remains.
“We learned different aspects of research, such as time management and analysis of artifacts and skeletonized remains,” Abdulkader says.
“There are still many studies that lie ahead of us, but we now have a much clearer picture of what to expect in the future in this field.”
The new research center is gaining traction, Gould says. Guidelines for awarding funds to undergraduate research projects are being drafted, and a campus-wide event is being planned so that students can share their discoveries.
“I cannot overstate the enthusiasm and support we have received from the
University administration and the entire Cal U community,” he says.
“There are many fine faculty members who are doing excellent research projects with undergraduate students right now. Really, we are just starting to scratch the surface of what is possible.”