Focus shifts to the learner

College: More undergraduates are beginning to discover the joys of research.

May 08, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Flashing strobe lights at quail eggs helped to change Matthew Linblad's approach to his education at St. Mary's College.

Linblad and fellow student Rachel Newman set out to find whether such pre-birth stimulation could affect the quails after they were born. The result, according to their faculty adviser, is a paper by the two seniors that will probably be published in a scientific journal.

Such work is part of a burgeoning trend -- undergraduates getting involved in the type of original research that used to be the province of faculty and graduate students. Juniors and seniors on Maryland campuses are documenting Russian baroque music written for the bassoon and mapping the structure of proteins in the AIDS virus.

"I think what we are seeing is a paradigm shift in higher education," said Robert L. Hampton, dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"What you see is a change from a focus on the teacher to a focus on the learner. The increase in undergraduate research is part of that change," he said.

Linblad, a 22-year-old from Connecticut, admitted that he got a D in his introductory psychology course. Two things turned him around -- getting past the first semester of his freshman year and discovering the joys of research.

"It really focused me," Linblad said. "Now I would like to go on to graduate school, maybe get a Ph.D. in psychology."

St. Mary's, the public college in southern Maryland, is among the schools seeking to emphasize such research by requiring a senior project of all students.

For 10 years, College Park has had a day in the spring featuring displays on graduate research projects; for the first time this year, it put on a similar show of undergraduate research.

Electrical engineering major Melissa Moy was one of those making a presentation. Her project involves making a computer operating system work on a digital signal processor.

"It gives you a chance to learn a lot of things," Moy said. "You actually get to see the stuff you learn in a textbook apply to something tangible."

UMCP President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr. described such research as "the key to a place like this."

"It links together the entire enterprise from acquiring knowledge out on the cutting edge to the basic undergraduate education," he said.

The university hands out 30 grants of $2,500 to underwrite research projects proposed by seniors.

The Johns Hopkins University has had a similar program for seven years and has launched another to attract top high school seniors with a promise of $10,000 over four years to support their research.

Undergraduate projects that received funding this year included projects as diverse as computer modeling a heart disease, making a film about yard sales and the work on Russian bassoon music.

Said Hopkins Arts and Sciences Dean Herbert L. Kessler: "It's active learning, not just sitting, reading or listening. You have to learn problem-solving techniques. You can't just regurgitate prefabricated stuff."

Some of the most advanced research by undergraduates comes out of the laboratory of chemist Michael L. Summers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Undergraduates there have published articles in top scientific journals.

Summers says he doesn't hesitate to give advanced projects to freshmen who are just starting out in their scientific course work.

"That's the way you learn," he said. "For instance, I tell students to take calculus and physics at the same time so they can see immediately how the math they learn is applied in science."

At Hood College in Frederick, junior Stacie Jeter said working in the school's summer science institute with chemistry professor Susan Ensel looking at a compound that is toxic to viruses might have changed her career plans.

"I always saw these courses as a steppingstone to med school," she said.

"Now I'm thinking of doing graduate work in chemistry."

K. Elaine Hoagland, the national executive officer of the Washington-based Council on Undergraduate Research, said such work can have other educational benefits.

"Research is a great leveler," she said, explaining that students whose high school backgrounds might put them at a disadvantage in the classroom can blossom doing this type of work.

"Research projects often pull kids out of their shell," she said. "It's a chance for them to show the faculty what they are capable of doing."

Such work certainly helped Matthew Linblad at St. Mary's. The quail project involved submitting more than 80 eggs at various stages of development to a strobe light.

The light was flashed so that it hit only one of the embryo's eyes.

When the quails were born, they were sent down a maze. Those hit with the light later in their development showed a preference for turning in the direction of the eye that had been subjected to the strobe.

"This is important for students like Matt, but he's going to go on to grad school and learn many of these lessons," said faculty adviser Michael Casey.

"It's even more important for students who go into business or some other field. They will have a basis for judging what they hear about science in the media and will often know that there's another side to what they hear."

After getting involved in research, Linblad went back and took Casey's introductory psychology course again. This time, he got an A.

Pub Date: 5/08/99

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