Original Research and the Liberal Arts
I have recently reviewed three liberal arts colleges that have different takes on independent research: Allegheny, Knox and Kalamazoo. All are deservedly Colleges That Change Lives, among the best liberal arts experiences in the country.
These schools offer a supportive academic environment much like I have found at more selective liberal arts schools, including an opportunity to do original research under the guidance of the faculty. Each school does it a different way.
Why is original research important for undergraduates?
The vast majority of recent college graduates opt for employment, even for a short time after graduation. Original research projects are one of the best demonstrations of problem-solving and communications skills as well as resourcefulness. The depth of these projects is such that a student must know learn how to write an effective proposal that will receive faculty support, and sometimes funding. These skills are essential for success in any workplace. Obviously, they are also essential for anyone who will pursue an advanced degree that requires a thesis or other original work.
The College of Wooster (OH), which I reviewed earlier, calls their process Mentored Research.
The mentoring relationship between a student and a faculty member culminates in a senior Independent Study. Seniors submit and celebrate their final project on ‘I.S. Monday’. I can safely tell you that I have seen nothing like an IS Monday in person or on YouTube on another college campus. After submitting their final project they do an oral presentation for faculty. Then they participate in a Senior Research Symposium for the student body and guests, including alumni. Similar events happen on other campuses, too.
Cathy Finks, Executive Director of Admissions, whom you “met” in my post earlier this year, and Jennifer Bowen, Dean of Academic Curriculum and Engagement spoke with me about the added pluses of Mentored Research. I hope that you will listen now!
Ten years ago, I walked around the College of Wooster. I saw banners that announced that only one other school took a similar approach: Princeton. The banners and my conversation raise an important point: the opportunities to do independent, original research are greater at a liberal arts school, unless one is fortunate to be in an honors college at a ;larger university..
Why is this so?
Faculty at a liberal arts college direct their attention to teaching and advising undergraduates. They engage them in their own research. Faculty members at a liberal arts college might have more reaching responsibilities. But they cannot rely on teaching assistants to help handle an introductory course as they would at a larger school.
However, professors are also expected to produce their own scholarly works and remain abreast of developments in their field. So, undergraduate students , even those who might not be halfway through their college education, fill an important role as their research assistants. The College of Wooster, as you will learn from the interview, has a Sophomore Research Program. While this is optional, it gives selected candidates an opportunity to learn what it takes to do original work on their own.
What should prospective students look for?
Dean Bowen covers some of this in our conversation, as it applies to The College of Wooster. Typically, a professor will advise five seniors on their Independent Study projects in addition to their teaching and research responsibilities. Some faculty might advise a few more students, depending on the major and resources.
if you are looking at liberal arts colleges as well as honors colleges at larger schools, ask these questions:
How does the school support original work?
As you will hear from Cathy and Jen, the Independent Study projects drives many aspects of the College of Wooster’s academic and business practices. This might include library and workspaces, but also financial support for travel and materials. You cannot take on a project that goes beyond the school’s resources. There is also a mandatory junior Independent study where students learn what is expected for their senior year.
What forms of original work will qualify as independent research ?
You could write a paper, but musical scores, novels, play scripts, computer programs and databases or instructional lessons have their own challenges. Good teachers will welcome the opportunity to go on the journey to help you take them on.
What are the best ways to prepare to take on original work?
The College of Wooster has a step by step process from the first year to the senior year. Writing is built into numerous courses as well. One common thread that I have seen across colleges is academic advising. You want to go to a school where faculty are accessible, willing to offer direction, and smile even when asked the silliest questions. It is also a good idea to take advantage of opportunities to write and deliver presentations in extracurricular activities.
What are the other requirements to complete?
The College of Wooster has a minimum of ten required courses in addition to your major, the Independent Study and the seminars and preparatory courses that get you ready to do it. Scots, as Wooster students are called, take 32 courses over four years. For comparison, Kalamazoo College (MI) has a Senior Integrated Project and an open curriculum with fewer requirements, but requires 36 courses over a different academic calendar. Be sure that you know what you will be asked to do over four years.
I really hope that you will listen to this conversation and appreciate how an excellent liberal arts college helps its students to think, develop their own conclusions and ideas and solve problems wherever they go to work.
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