The concept of learning by doing is by no means new. Indeed, it has gained increasing attention and favor in K-12 education during the past decade. Too often, however, once students reach college they find themselves in lecture-intensive classes in which student involvement is rare. Marshall University, located in Huntington, West Virginia, is reversing that trend through its undergraduate research programs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Marshall University is classified as a Master’s-level institution that also offers various doctoral degree programs, including a Ph.D. in biomedical science. However, undergraduate students are the centerpiece of the university and key participants in the scientific research that takes place on campus. As early as the freshman year, students can join faculty in research laboratories, thereby enabling three full years of active participation in a research project. This continuity benefits both the student and the faculty member who is leading the project, as less time can be spent on training newcomers and more time can be spent on research.
Dr. Stephen J. Kopp, President of Marshall University, is a strong proponent of STEM education, and has devoted much of his time and energy to the development of Marshall’s STEM programs. “By involving our students in scientific research and inquiry-based learning at every level, we are providing them with the experience necessary to forge the path to success upon graduation,” Dr. Kopp said. “Further, they can enjoy the satisfaction of becoming involved in discoveries that expand our knowledge and have the potential to improve our world.”
Increasing Student Participation
Many examples exist affirming the recent increase in dedication to the STEM fields and undergraduate research on Marshall’s campus. In 2004, Dr. Michael Castellani, chair of the Department of Chemistry at Marshall, spearheaded the creation of Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol. This event provides undergraduate students from all higher education institutions in West Virginia the unique opportunity to travel to the state capitol and showcase their research findings to state policymakers during the legislative session. The participation of Marshall University students in this annual event has grown from eleven in the first year to twenty-six in 2010. The scope of the research represented has also grown from just three areas (psychology, chemistry and physics) to ten, including biochemistry, mathematics, economics, and English.
In 2005, Marshall University offered its first Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE). Funded by the West Virginia Research Challenge Fund, SURE provides a $4,000 stipend to support students during a ten-week summer research session. This year, students are working on a wide variety of subjects including treatments for Parkinson’s disease, the diversity of freshwater mussels in a local creek, the mitochondrial DNA ancestry of African American students at Marshall University, and the connection between nicotine use and retinal disease.
The high level of undergraduate student participation in scientific research is due in large part to the encouragement the students receive from the STEM faculty at Marshall. “From the time students enroll in the College of Science, we start telling them about the opportunities in and benefits of participating in a research lab,” said Dr. Charles Somerville, Dean of the College of Science. “Students involved in research are more successful and graduate at higher rates, so we really encourage them to approach the professors they feel an affinity for and become a part of their research team.”
The creation of the Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research (MIIR) in 2008 has led to additional opportunities for student researchers. Supported by the “Bucks for Brains” West Virginia Research Trust Fund, MIIR’s mission is to develop research that will lead to economic development through patentable discoveries. Among the distinguished and accomplished research team members, most of whom hold advanced degrees, is a research assistant who is currently an undergraduate student in Marshall University’s College of Science.
Marshall’s undergraduate STEM students are also working on projects that have immediate and practical application. This spring, the senior project design students in the Bachelor of Science in Engineering program collaborated with an art professor in the College of Fine Arts to design decorative concrete pillars for a downtown beautification project. Taking Professor Byron Clercx’s artistic design, the students worked with engineering professor Dr. Wael Zatar to develop a concrete mix that would be flexible enough to showcase the detail of the design, but strong enough to be structurally sound for use on a public street. One student in the course, Michael Audelo, had this to say of the experience: “Not only was it exciting to work on a project that will potentially be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, but the experience of building something real, rather than something that would work theoretically, was great preparation for the work we will do upon graduation.”
Building for the Future
Marshall University’s dedication to STEM research is also reflected in capital projects on campus. The Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center, 144,000 square feet of classroom, office and research space shared by the College of Science, MIIR, and the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine opened in 2006. The first phase of an engineering and applied science complex opened in 2008 with the dedication of the Arthur Weisberg Family Engineering Laboratories. The Weisberg labs utilize a flexible and open design that allows full use of space every academic semester. A second construction phase will provide new classroom space for many technological and applied science programs, including engineering and computer science, and a magnet STEM academy for high school students.
“Big Enough to Matter, Small Enough to Care”
With a total student population of more than 14,000 students, Marshall University has the ability to provide students with the resources more often found at larger institutions. “Marshall University has positioned itself to give students access to facilities that rival those at the best research institutions in the country, but we have retained our commitment to personalized, student-centered education at every level,” said President Kopp. “Our undergraduate students are routinely taught by full-time faculty in classes of fewer than fifty students. That’s why we say that Marshall is big enough to matter, and small enough to care.” The growth and success of Marshall’s undergraduate research program is just another example of how Marshall University is putting students and their learning first.