A college education is important for success in life. But the kind of education a person receives also matters a great deal. At the University of Idaho, we understand how students’ participation in research, scholarship and creative activity prepares them to succeed. A public, land-grant research university like ours is uniquely suited to offer those experiences, so we created the Office of Undergraduate Research. This week I connected with David Pfeiffer, professor of biological sciences and the director of our undergraduate research office, to get a firsthand look at the impact research participation has on student success.
President Chuck Staben: Why is undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activity so important? What do such opportunities mean for students?
David Pfeiffer: Research projects, scholarly activities and creative activities are fundamentally different from class work and the experience of doing them can engage students in wholly different ways. They demand a kind of tenacity and creativity that often isn’t fully realized in traditional classes and labs. Collectively, they are recognized as among a handful of high-impact educational practices that help foster critical thinking skills, innovation and independence in students. As such, these experiences help better prepare students for success during their degrees and beyond, regardless of their career path. Employers are not in the dark on this, and they are increasingly looking for evidence of these types of experiences on students’ resumés.
CS: Why did you personally want to take on the role of director? What drives you in your work?
DP: What drives me is student success, both during college and beyond. That’s what led me into a career in academia. Undergraduate research as an effective tool for helping students achieve success resonates deeply with me, stemming in part from my own research experiences as an undergraduate. That view has been reinforced continuously since then as I have watched students benefit from these experiences. U of I offers undergraduates exceptional opportunities to participate in research and scholarly activities, but I believe it has not yet reached its full potential. My desire to help make this happen and thereby increase student success is what drew me to this leadership role.
CS: What’s a success story you’ve seen?
DP: For me, some of the most satisfying stories involve “at-risk” students. One that stands out involved a student I first met when he was near the end of his first semester. He was floundering in his coursework and was on the verge of dropping out of college. I challenged him to try undergraduate research, which he did, and it completely turned his world around. His project ignited an inner drive and intellectual curiosity within him. He became more engaged in his coursework, moved from the back of the classroom to the front, and his grades went from Cs to solid As. Fast-forward eight years: He graduated from medical school. He is now working as a family physician, serving the community in which he grew up. To this day he credits undergraduate research as the transformative experience that helped him realize his full potential.
CS: What are highlights of the office’s year? What key events and activities?
DP: 2018 has been a banner year for the Office of Undergraduate Research. We funded over 70 individual undergraduate research or scholarly projects and helped send numerous students to present their work at national and international conferences. We also worked with faculty to redesign courses to include a significant research component. A highlight was the annual university-wide Undergraduate Research Symposium held in April. It is a multidisciplinary event that showcases the work of students from all colleges at U of I. The symposium continues to grow in size each year – this year’s event had over 130 student presenters.
CS: What future work through the office are you looking forward to? What’s the future hold for undergraduate research at U of I?
DP: U of I already stands out from many of its peer institutions for the number of undergraduates it involves in research and scholarship. But I see great potential to engage even more students in these experiences. One approach I am particularly excited about is the use of course-based undergraduate research experiences, or CUREs. Through the use of appropriately designed CUREs, U of I could engage far greater numbers of students in this high-impact practice. Strategically placed in the curriculum, CUREs could help provide the vast majority of U of I students with a valid research experience at some point during their degree.
CS: I appreciate the perspective on the progress and success of undergraduate research at U of I. Thank you, David, for your leadership in an essential component of U of I’s academic excellence for undergraduates!