Student Research and Its Impact

Michael E. Latham, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college

David Lopatto, professor of psychology and director of Grinnell’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, has spent much of his career analyzing the impact of student research experiences. And he has discovered something profound — when students create new knowledge, they are fundamentally transformed. Lopatto writes: “Personal development benefits from undergraduate research experiences include the growth of self-confidence, independence, tolerance for obstacles, interest in a discipline, and a sense of accomplishment — features of student maturation that are ‘seen out of the corner of the eye.’”

That phrase captures the serendipity created when students step into laboratories, archives, and field research sites. It also reflects the way that student research has provided Grinnellians with a learning experience that has deeply enriched their lives. They have become co-authors on professional journal articles, delivered papers at national and regional conferences, and stood shoulder to shoulder with experts in their fields, at times the only undergraduate in the room. Their experiences have enabled them to demonstrate the creativity and skill that have won them admission into professional school in law or medicine and have made Grinnell among the top 10 institutions in the United States, per capita, in sending students on to Ph.D. programs in the arts and sciences.

Yet the impact witnessed “out of the corner of the eye” goes much further. It helps students discover interests and talents that they didn’t know they possessed. It enables them to begin professional lives of great purpose and meaning.

Edward Hsieh ’16 partnered with Jackie Brown, professor of biology, to pursue a growing interest in the evolution of animal populations. After working summers on research projects supported by the National Science Foundation, he has gained an incisive perspective on the way that forces of climate change are transforming life across the planet.

Through study abroad in India, Liliana Bagnoli ’15 developed an interest at the intersection of anthropology and economic development. When she returned to Grinnell, she researched informal labor activity in India, presented her work at the Central States Anthropology Society, and won the American India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service, an award that placed her with an Indian nongovernment organization, providing critical analysis of health care, education, and infrastructure for the Indian government.

Alexandra Odom ’16 knew that she was interested in the history of the American civil rights movement. Study abroad in London and inquiry into the history of British women’s activism deepened her curiosity in the movement’s international dimensions. As a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program fellow, Odom conducted civil rights research with Al Lacson, associate professor of history, and gained a full scholarship to complete a Ph.D. in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, launching her scholarly career.

The benefits of student research are so compelling that Grinnell’s faculty members are now seeking ways to embed research experiences throughout the curriculum, making such transformative work an integral part of the College’s degree. The forms of those experiences will vary. Some students will complete Mentored Advanced Projects, while others may engage in department-based research seminars, course-embedded projects, or independent studies.

As a key part of Grinnell’s inquiry-led curriculum, over the next few years the College will work to provide all students with an opportunity to link the creation of knowledge with compelling, personal transformation. That’s a very exciting step, and one that will have impacts for decades to come.

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