Undergraduate opportunities on the rise

Creative projects at large universities no longer limited to grad students

April 21, 2002|By Diane Mikulis | Diane Mikulis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Last year, Daniel Redman visited a village in Ukraine to learn what happened to its Jewish community during the Holocaust. This summer, he'll travel to China and Syria to interview religious leaders for an investigation into spiritual leadership.

But Redman is no professional scholar -- he's a junior at the Johns Hopkins University. His work is being made possible through the Woodrow Wilson Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which lets undergraduates do the kind of original research once available only to graduate students.

"We are a research institution first and foremost, but we don't want the undergraduates to get submerged," said Ralph Kuncl, newly appointed vice provost for undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins.

Hopkins isn't alone in offering innovative opportunities to undergraduates. The University of Maryland, College Park has implemented dozens of new programs for undergraduates over the past 10 years.

These institutions are part of a nationwide push to improve undergraduate education at research universities -- those known primarily for their high-caliber graduate programs.

That effort has been picking up steam since the 1998 release of a report funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, titled "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities."

Known as the Boyer Commission report, the study made specific recommendations on how to improve undergraduates' educational experience -- and got the attention of administrators acutely aware of the need to compete for undergraduates.

"Largely because of the Boyer report, there's a real interest in bringing the undergraduate education in line with the graduate, and in increasing research," said Wendy Katkin, director of the Reinvention Center at the State University of New York Stony Brook, set up to focus on undergraduate education in research universities.

"The goal is to have undergraduates participate in the generation of knowledge."

At Hopkins, the Wilson Research Fellowship is just one program that allows undergraduate students to engage in research efforts designed under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Students have traveled to Kenya to study poverty, developed techniques for detecting land mines and examined the problems of Baltimore residents commuting to the suburbs for jobs.

"About 80 percent of our undergraduates do significant self-directed research and creative activities," said Kuncl.

Dan Weiss, dean of faculty at Hopkins, said that as early as freshman year, students are encouraged to participate in research seminars -- small classes that allow them to explore a concept in depth. Small classes also are a way of getting the students involved immediately.

"Who would argue with the idea that the first-year experience is tremendously important?" asked Bill Leslie, a professor in the History of Science Department. "They come to a class with 15 people, and they feel like they need to keep up with each other."

The University of Maryland has been making changes in its undergraduate programs for about 10 years, prompted at first by declining enrollment and tighter budgets.

Provost Bill Destler has been at College Park since 1973 and remembers when the university was quite different.

"It took in any graduate from a Maryland high school," he recalled. The freshman class was at least 5,000 students, and it was expected that many of them would be weeded out. Most introductory classes were large lectures.

Facing an unpleasant financial picture, administrators realized they needed to take action. "We decided to literally transform the institution and become a nationally recognized undergraduate university," Destler said. "We came up with creative solutions to make the big store small."

Smaller classes seemed one answer. But with 24,000 full-time undergraduate students -- compared with 4,500 at Hopkins -- officials were forced to look for creative alternatives to the classroom. One of the most ambitious ideas was to set up programs intended to extend learning beyond the classroom and into the residence halls.

In these Living/Learning programs, students live on floors with others interested in the same academic or career pursuits. They can study together and attend programs and activities that are brought into the dorm to complement what the students learn in the classroom.

There are Living/Learning programs for students interested in entrepreneurship, languages, journalism and multicultural living. Students in the Honors Program and the College Park Scholars -- an honors program with a strong community service component -- also have the option to live in the same dormitory area.

"We try to make a big university small," said C.D. Dan Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, College Park. "It's like getting in a 747 and sitting on the upper deck. We make it smaller for them but are still giving them access to the whole university."

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