University Scholars Program
Provost's new initiative introduces undergraduates to the challenges of academic research
Courtney Johns, a senior mathematics major, spent much of her summer testing and retesting a cutting edge algorithmic convergence theorem. During his break, senior English major Doug Knox pored over a rare three-volume first edition of Jane Austen's Emma. Though their work might seem worlds apart, not to mention extraordinary for undergraduates on vacation, both projects are part of the same UF program.
Johns and Knox are two of 60 CLAS students participating in UF's first class of University Scholars. The University Scholars Program (USP), a Provost's initiative which includes nearly 250 undergraduates across UF, began last spring as a way to provide students with hands-on opportunities to pursue original research and scholarly activities.
After being accepted into the program by his/her respective college, each Scholar--working closely with a faculty mentor--is required to identify a topic, conduct research during the summer, and then continue investigation throughout the academic year. "This is a terrific opportunity," says Debbie Ader, a senior criminology major who is working with mentor Jennifer Woolard (Criminology) on a survey study of state prosecutor and public defender attitudes toward juvenile defendants. "I've learned so much, and with this project I have a chance to influence real policy issues."
Woolard seconds her Scholar's enthusiasm. "Because Debbie's topic has real world significance, it gives us the opportunity to consider how science 'works' in the real world--collaborating with community members to conduct a project and considering the policy implications of our findings while remaining true to the scientific method."
Students recognized as University Scholars receive a $2500 research stipend and an additional $500 to attend the scholarly conference of their choice during the year. In addition, Scholars will have the opportunity to publish their findings in UF's new on-line Journal of Undergraduate Research (JUR). Each issue of the JUR, which posted its inaugural issue October 9, features student articles, research summaries and updates on projects in-progress, as well as human-interest profiles of USP participants.
"The variety of topics involved is remarkable. From English to medicine to engineering, we have something to interest everyone," says Henri Van Rinsvelt (Physics), editor of the journal. "We think the JUR will promote the concept of serious undergraduate research to other universities, and graduate schools and high schools for that matter."
Knox says his paper for the JUR will concern the critical issues he encountered this summer while working with Alistair Duckworth (English) on the production of an authoritative text of Jane Austen's novel Emma. "We used the original 1816 text in our special collections library," Knox explains. "It was my responsibility to note any discrepancies between the first edition and two modern versions and to identify for annotation passages that might cause difficulties for the undergraduate reader."
Duckworth finds the process beneficial for both professor and Scholar. "The program came at a most opportune time. I receive help with proofreading and research; Doug receives hands-on experience. He photocopied the original edition, put it into a format for press submission, and collated it with the modern Penguin and Oxford editions. His performance has been impressive."
Johns says that her collaboration with Bruce Edwards (Math), though in its first stages, has hit several high points already. "This summer was fun. Every week we discovered something new and exciting, or realized that our previous ideas were false."
And mentor Woolard agrees that USP offers singular academic opportunities. "Reading and hearing about other people's work really can't compare to designing and implementing your own project from start to finish."
While participation in USP provides obvious advantages for students interested in graduate studies, the challenges of the program are designed to foster a broad range of practical skills. Successful participation demands the kind of advanced communication and analytical abilities that will facilitate student advancement in the job market and beyond.
To this end, Scholars can enroll in the William and Grace Dial Center for Written and Oral Communication course Advanced Professional Communication, designed by Center director Jane Douglas specifically to aid in the articulation of complex information. CLAS Dean Will Harrison considers this experience essential. "Scholars must be able to explain to others what they do. The value of good communication skills, both written and verbal, can hardly be overestimated."
To commemorate the Scholars' year of in-depth research, the Provost's office plans to host the first annual USP Symposium in the new UF Conference Center April 1, 2000. During the event, selected students will formally present their findings to the other scholars and mentors, as well as parents and faculty reviewers.
"Even if these students don't become academic researchers, the confidence they develop through this program should serve them well," says Woolard about the many benefits of USP. "In a school this large it's easy to lose sight of the power of the individual connections we make with students on their intellectual growth. This program is one of many ways that we can continue the educational process outside the traditional classroom environment."