April 2004  

A student in the Chemistry REU, the oldest of James Madison's science research programs.

JMU Advances Integrative and Engaged Learning through Summer Research Programs in the Sciences

Since the release of the influential report from the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, many schools have created opportunities for undergraduates in all fields, but especially in the sciences, to deepen their learning through hands-on research. James Madison University (JMU), located in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, has a long tradition of promoting undergraduate science research. In addition to the many research opportunities available during the regular academic year, the school has hosted intensive summer research programs for sixteen years. For twelve of those years, JMU has received National Science Foundation (NSF) funding as a designated Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site--an unusual distinction for a comprehensive university that offers only terminal bachelor's degrees in the sciences.

James Madison was recognized by AAC&U as a Greater Expectations Leadership Institution because of its commitment to such innovative undergraduate programs. The school's summer programs, in particular, exemplify how advanced research can foster engaged learning in the sciences. Participants in the programs, who come from JMU as well as other mid-Atlantic colleges and universities, are immersed in science for ten weeks. By undertaking concentrated research and by working closely with professional scientists, they are given a sense of what they might expect from careers in science. Recent assessment surveys testify to the programs' success: Not only do students from the REUs go on to present or publish their work and to pursue postgraduate education in large numbers, but they also derive other, less tangible benefits--such as improved communication skills, perseverance, and self-confidence--from their research experiences.

"A Summer Research Community"

JMU's summer research programs originated in the Chemistry Department in the late 1980s and have been supported by the NSF since 1990. In 1999, faculty and administrators decided to expand the program into other departments. This move, according to David Brakke, Dean of JMU's College of Science and Mathematics, reflected the school's commitment to building "a summer research community." "The intent," Brakke explains, was to create a model of integrative learning--an "opportunity for interaction between faculty and students working in different areas . . . where we could, for example, bring in a bioethics speaker in the biology area of the program whose talk would be of broad interest to the students in other areas."

As other departments secured NSF funding, this summer community has become a reality. Today, the school's REU programs involve more than 100 undergraduates and faculty members in chemistry, materials science, math, and biology. As in previous years, every student conducts intensive research in his or her field and receives individual mentoring from a faculty member. At the same time, organized social events, lectures, and symposia allow students to engage with work outside of their fields, contributing to an interdisciplinary sense of community.

Despite their recent success, the REU programs at James Madison face significant challenges. Administering the research grants--arranging for stipends and student housing, and addressing other infrastructural concerns--requires a willingness on the part of program directors to deal with what one professor terms "the intrinsic bureaucracy of the business wing of the university." Faculty also have to deal with the difficulties of maintaining funding for the programs. "We will have to work hard to justify the funding of our program at a PUI when there are larger research-intensive universities that will always be able to exceed our publication rates," explains Christopher Hughes, a professor at the Materials Science REU Site. "We will have to continue to spread the message that what we do here is entirely in the hands of the undergraduates but is still at a competitive level scientifically."

JMU's summer research programs foster a sense of community and promote engaged learning.

Innovations in Undergraduate Research

Students in JMU's summer programs are assigned faculty mentors and research topics before they arrive on campus. Once at the REU Site, they are expected to conduct their research with the goal of future presentation or publication. The research itself is more advanced than what undergraduates would typically pursue during the academic year: Among this summer's potential projects are such topics as "Cyclopropane Fragmentation Approaches to Heterocyclic Natural Product Syntheses," "Self-Assembly of Phosphonic Acids on Compound Semiconductors," "Effect of Antibiotics on Fiber Degradation by Anaerobic Zoosporic Fungi," and "Isoperimetric Numbers of Cayley Graphs."

Faculty commitment to the programs has been a key element in their success. All of the participating faculty are dedicated to undergraduate research, Dean Brakke says, and many of them have pushed the programs in surprising new directions. As an example, he points to the Chemistry Department, where Professor Gina MacDonald has added deaf scientists to the REU. As a result of Professor MacDonald's initiative, the chemistry site now attracts deaf undergraduates and interpreters as well as deaf high school students and teachers. By encouraging new deaf scientists, the program seeks to counter some of the barriers faced by scientists with disabilities; at the same time, the inclusion of deaf scientists has affected many of the program's hearing students, who leave with a richer understanding both of communication in the sciences and of accessibility issues in their fields.

Another innovative program launched through faculty initiative is Biology Professor Daniel Wubah's international REU in Ghana. A collaboration between JMU and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, Dr. Wubah's REU offers students the opportunity to conduct field research on environmental and health issues in Africa. Despite its high cost, the program has grown steadily since it was first launched in 2002. By emphasizing cultural learning and exposing students to international research, this unique program suggests new ways of fostering global learning and student engagement through science.

Outcomes and Assessment

James Madison recently began collecting assessment data about its summer research programs, and results so far indicate that students are benefiting both personally and professionally from their experiences. Seventy percent of students surveyed said they intend to pursue postgraduate study, and respondents were especially positive about the outcome of the programs in such areas as understanding of the research process, understanding of laboratory techniques, readiness for more demanding research, and enhancement of professional and academic credentials.

Unfortunately, despite the recent expansion of REU programs at JMU, participation still is limited to a relatively small, select group of undergraduates. Moreover, because the REU Sites are funded by the NSF, comparable summer programs in the humanities and social sciences are not now available. Dr. Wubah nonetheless is optimistic about the impact of the REU programs on the campus as a whole. "Undergraduate research at JMU is on the upswing because our efforts are being emulated by other colleges across campus," Wubah says. "I have seen an increase in the number of student research presentations being made on campus in the humanities and arts in the past two years."

Dr. Daniel Downey, director of the Chemistry Department's REU, also believes that faculty involvement in summer research is improving instruction year-round. Faculty who participate in such research, Downey notes, "tend to be excited about instruction as well--they stay current in science and draw lessons and examples from their own research in lectures." In the end, though, it is clearly the students who benefit the most from the REU programs. As Professor Christopher Hughes explains, "My teaching would be slightly different without research; my students' learning would be dramatically different."

James Madison University is online at www.jmu.edu. More information about REU programs in chemistry, materials science, mathematics, and biology is available on departmental Web sites, as is information about the REU program in Ghana. Information about the REU programs nationwide can be found on the National Science Foundation's Web site. The Boyer Report and the Greater Expectations program can also be accessed online.