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Why the undergraduate years should include a research experience

Exposing undergrads to more research opportunities is “becoming the new gold standard.”


Several years ago, Bonnie Klohn wanted to explore her passion for local, sustainable food by raising hens at her home in Kamloops, B.C. But, in Kamloops, it’s illegal to raise chickens in your backyard. So the first-year interdisciplinary studies major asked her food systems professor if she could take the issue to the city in lieu of a community project assignment.

Her instructor at Thompson Rivers University agreed to the arrangement and, in the spring of 2007, Ms. Klohn went in front of city council with a PowerPoint presentation promoting the health and economic benefits of backyard chickens and how they’d align with the city’s official plan. “I got turned down,” she says. However, due to media coverage of her pitch, “things got crazy. Hundreds of people interested in [the issue] contacted me.”

Ms. Klohn earned an A in the course and even founded a community advocacy group. While drafting petitions and organizing a pilot study, she met TRU tourism management faculty member Robin Reid. Together, they did two original research projects on community gardens. For one of them, Ms. Klohn secured $4,500 in funding from TRU’s Undergraduate Research Experience Award Program.

Over the five years it took to complete her degree, Ms. Klohn aligned most of her school assignments with her extracurricular research projects and funded her education with research gigs. She did part-time work with a Community-University Research Alliance project called Small Cities, received travel funding and completed a capstone research project. Except for two summers spent tree planting, she took no other jobs. “If you need money when you’re a student, and if you can get it for something that will boost your resumé and help you get a job, why wouldn’t you do that?”

Asking questions, gathering data and writing up the results gave Ms. Klohn both cash and skills. She now works for the Kamloops-based consulting firm Urban Systems doing “very research-oriented work” in urban planning. “All the research I did as an undergrad helped me to get this job,” she says.

Digging for new data and making connections

Undergraduate students like Ms. Klohn who conduct or participate in research projects find this work transforms their undergraduate years. Instead of taking in information passively, they’re digging for new data and making their own connections. What’s more, the techniques they learn doing research projects – defining an issue, collecting and synthesizing data, communicating results – translate into job skills and offer valuable preparation if they decide to pursue a graduate degree. These students may even contribute to original academic knowledge.

The benefits are so alluring that many universities are pushing themselves to incorporate more research into the undergraduate experience. “It’s becoming the new gold standard,” says Will Garrett-Petts, associate vice-president of research and graduate studies at TRU.

The Council on Undergraduate Research in Washington, D.C., has seen its membership grow by 40 percent over the last four years (11 Canadian universities are currently members). Universities are directing more funding to this area, opening up undergraduate research offices, launching journals and studying the impact of it all. Early work is under way to create a national undergraduate research association.

Even with these advances, universities can’t yet meet student demand. The very structure of these institutions was built around undergrads not doing research; it has no natural home, funding or curriculum model. “It’s hard to find an example where the research activity of undergraduates isn’t an afterthought, where it’s not ghettoized or compartmentalized,” says Dr. Garrett-Petts.

“Anything where there’s hands-on, inquiry-based learning”

Undergraduate research in its simplest form involves a student asking a question, looking at data and discussing the findings in a research paper for a class assignment or as an extra-curricular project – or being involved in some or all of that process as an assistant to a professor.

Elizabeth Ambos, executive officer of the Council on Undergraduate Research, says her organization defines this type of research as “anything where there’s hands-on, inquiry-based learning.” This work happens in the community, in labs and while doing class assignments. “Professors and students might be doing it already but just not have the language for it,” says Connie Varnhagen, a psychology professor and academic director of the Undergraduate Research Initiative at the University of Alberta.

In all its forms, such projects get students out of lecture seats and engaged. “We have lots of testimonials from students who said it gave them a greater connection” to their own learning and to university life in general, says Joy Kirchner, university librarian at York University, who is involved in the school’s annual undergraduate research fair and other projects. According to Will Gage, associate vice-president, teaching and learning, at York, “research teaches softer skills that really help, even if a student isn’t going on to grad school or professional school, skills that make them more employable and career-ready.”

Faculty can benefit, too: in a lab, an undergrad can be assigned experimental work that may or may not pan out. A newcomer can bring fresh insight to research

And, since undergrads usually take an array of courses, they’re naturally more inclined to find interdisciplinary links. “We’re seeing new connections between faculty, and it is students that brought them together,” says U of A’s Dr. Varnhagen. For universities, undergraduate research opportunities improve retention levels and help attract talented students.

“This becomes a brand component,” says Dr. Gage. Research-intensive departments would be smart to promote that they offer high-level research experiences from day one, he says.

Getting a leg up

On a slushy day last February, Nick Zabara made the trek from his new home in Waterloo, Ontario, to the northern edge of Toronto to stand in front of his poster for York University’s annual Undergraduate Research Fair. He had surveyed 181 parents with kids aged four to six who visited York’s O.U.C.H. (Opportunities to Understand Childhood Hurt) Lab, where he had volunteered in his final year.

“Pain anxiety can really affect how parents report pain in their kids,” explains Mr. Zabara, who completed his psychology and professional writing double major last spring. This work, which he did for his honours thesis, tackles a fresh and promising avenue that others in the lab are now looking into it.

For Mr. Zabara, the undergraduate years were crammed with such projects. On top of the lab work, he did two years of volunteer writing and editing for The Trauma & Mental Health Report blog (and got credit for his work there via an independent studies course), had his writing published in a textbook and presented at the research fair three times (he won an award for his second-year poster).

His ultimate reward for all that work: landing one of just four spots in the University of Waterloo’s coveted clinical psychology MA/PhD program. Having beat out nearly 300 other applicants to land in that fastpaced program, he’s grateful to have seen the inside of a lab and done a few literature reviews before entering graduate school. “This gave me a leg up on my current grad work,” Mr. Zabara says.

It’s not just universities that are seeing the benefits of supporting undergraduate researchers, either. Some lucky students, particularly those in the STEM fields, may qualify for $4,500 Student Research Awards from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. And most research-based organizations and institutions, such as hospitals, also offer paid summer research internships.

“We need to share our research. It’s important and we don’t do it often enough”

Nor is the trend limited to the sciences. Education, business, journalism and fine-arts schools often offer hands-on projects that align well with their subject matter. Mr. Zabara’s second-year professional writing professor, for one, encouraged his students to get published – it’s how Mr. Zabara ended up at York’s research fair in the first place.

But, fundamentally, most faculties – even those that offer research opportunities – operate under a traditional model of classroom lectures and group seminars. “Research is something received for undergraduates,” says TRU’s Dr. Garrett-Petts. “You learn about it but you don’t learn how to do it. … You’re removed from it.”

Meanwhile, professors seldom talk about their own research projects and processes in class. “We need to share our research. It’s important and we don’t do it often enough,” says Dr. Varnhagen at U of A. Some programs offer capstone projects, but many students don’t understand what they entail and opt for other classes. This disconnect between the larger research and teaching missions of the university and undergrads is changing, but slowly.

In the absence of a tried-and-true model for nurturing research among undergrads, many schools are in an ongoing beta-testing mode. “Every university seems to have a different model,” says Dr. Ambos of the Council of Undergraduate Research. On the administrative side, most Canadian schools have a point person or small team working out of the research office or the teaching and learning office. Neither are an ideal fit. Dr. Ambos has seen the best results at universities that have a stand-alone entity championing research for undergrads. “You need to have some kind of main office on campus,” she says, “someone who’s working at the very highest level in the organization who has stature and who has resources.”

In Canada, very few universities have such offices. Two that do are U of A and the University of Ottawa, created in 2011 and 2012, respectively. They offer workshops on topics such as writing posters and getting published (U of O offers much of its content bilingually). Perhaps more importantly, they support faculty in integrating research into class assignments, give out funding, track results and offer resources to help support new ideas. At U of A, a team of 10 student volunteers drum up interest in the office and deliver workshops to their peers. Pascale Lafrance, former director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at U of O, is taking the lead in forming a national undergraduate research group, which she says could launch as early as this fall.

When people run out of steam, so can the projects

At TRU, hands-on learning is “part of our DNA,” says Dr. Garrett-Petts, with both students and faculty on board. It focuses on funded research programs that build on each other: lower-year students can get $300 to be research assistants and upper-years can apply for $4,500 grants to do their own research, as Ms. Klohn did. Students in their final year who are veterans of this system are now testing out a new ambassador program that gives them $3,000 to be part of a community project and to help run TRU’s annual undergraduate research conference.

But even at schools that have some kind of undergraduate research infrastructure in place and widespread support for it, projects tend to depend on the efforts and energy of individuals. When people run out of steam, so can the projects. Students launch a journal, which then folds after they graduate. Profs running an effective in-class project go on sabbatical, and when they return decide to try something less time-consuming and labour-intensive.

“There’s no question running these kinds of projects in a large classroom is a challenge,” says associate biology professor Scott Findlay. About half the students in his classes at U of O opt for regular coursework and exams, while the rest sign on to be part of his so-called “second order” science research projects. He’s got a dozen or so databases set up and students can pick one and add more content on, say, what’s been published in the literature on metastatic cancer over the last year. They attempt to answer questions through their results and write it all up in a final paper. In turn, Dr. Findlay uses these growing databases as source material for some of his published papers. Creating the databases, offering additional support and customizing questions for final papers adds to his workload so he relies on his research assistant to train students.

Scaling up these projects and reaching more students is key

Scaling up these projects and reaching more students is key for the next phase of this growing trend. “We have at least twice as much demand as we have funding,” says Dr. Garrett-Petts of TRU. At Dalhousie University, Brad Wuetherick, executive director of the teaching and learning office, says about five percent of all undergraduate students do a summer research internship and 20 percent complete an honours research project. “We want it to be more than that. But there’s no way we can have 16,000 undergraduates one-on-one with a prof,” he says.

The relatively low number of research opportunities for undergrads generally get snapped up by top performing students (the NSERC grants, for example, are awarded based on GPA). When only a small group gets access, it translates into a diversity problem; studies indicate this work benefits underperforming students the most. “Upper middle-class students get a lot out of it. But for first-generation students from disadvantaged backgrounds, these are life-changing experiences,” says Dr. Garrett-Petts.

To level things out, he says universities need to get inquiry-based learning by way of research projects into classrooms. That will only happen if there’s the right funding for faculty and support for things like curriculum development. As U of A’s Dr. Varnhagen sees it, “it’s mostly just a change in attitude.”

Diane Peters
Diane Peters is a Toronto-based writer and editor.
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  1. Beth / September 8, 2016 at 23:16

    PS The City of Kamloops now allows backyard hens thanks in no small part to Ms Klohn’s undergraduate research.