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Learning by exploring the unknown

Doing research is valuable for undergraduates. We need more opportunities to solve practical problems.

By YUHAO (DANNY) HUANG | March 25, 2015

This time it will work. I have read countless articles on growing protein crystals for molecular imaging and scoured the web for advice. The setup is flawless and chemical solutions I spent weeks making are of the ideal composition. Yet when I arrive at the lab the next morning to check on crystal growth, there is nothing; it did not work. I take a deep breath, clean up my station and start again.

This was my fifth summer of research, and I had learned to accept multiple failures. More importantly, I had come to enjoy the investigative process and had experienced the many ways it could benefit both my personal and professional growth. Over five summers, I began to see undergraduate research not as a supplement to learning, but rather as an indispensable component of my postsecondary education.

At the core of undergraduate research is the prospect that students are at the frontier of what is known and are already supporting an effort to increase understanding of the world. By solving real problems under the guidance of faculty members, students have the opportunity to apply information offered in traditional lectures in a useful way. Doing so in the context of the research process not only makes a meaningful contribution to society, but also helps us to consolidate and internalize the course material. We are trained to become resilient under the continual threat of failure, to persevere, to tackle problems critically and creatively, and to show humility when the results do turn out to be promising. Honing these skills is important to me personally, academically and professionally.

Since universities are primarily institutions of innovation, learning and teaching, I find surprising that more resources aren’t in place to make research accessible and inclusive. Summer funding for students is highly competitive, limiting the experience to those with exceptional grades. The students who muster enough courage to send inquiry emails to professors are often met with one-word rejections or no response at all. The biased perception that research is meant for those headed for graduate studies discourages students in general programs from participating. For those undergraduate students who do get a coveted placement in a research lab, the experience can be excellent or mediocre, with some participating directly in important projects and others watching on the sidelines.

Making research more inclusive starts in the classrooms. Instructors and professors can foster an environment of inquiry and problem-solving by highlighting their own projects, relating their work to the course material and actively sharing information on ways to get involved.

Through tighter integration of lecture and research, what seems like two disparate modalities of learning can be made compatible and enrich the classroom experience. For example, a teaching exercise in a conservation biology class had students collect data on bird death from window collisions through public surveys, and it culminated in a journal publication. It was an excellent example of course-research integration that I learned about at the University of Alberta.

Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to conduct biomedical research since Grade 11 and have enjoyed every moment of it. From performing experiments in pediatric oncology to understanding trends in epidemiology, I have delved deeper into subjects than I could have imagined possible. I have learned, re-learned and refined important skills. Undergraduate research is not only for the smart, nor is it merely a learning supplement. It is central to postsecondary education, and it is time to make it accessible.

This is the eighth installment of our series Student Voices written by the 10 Canadian postsecondary students who were named 2014 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada.

Yuhao (Danny) Huang
Yuhao (Danny) Huang is a 2014 3M National Student Fellow and a honours bachelor of science student at the University of Alberta, where he founded the National Student Network.
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