Lunar footprint

Undergraduate research and scholarship

What motivates us to discover and explore new frontiers? What unbroken causal chain connects a child’s boundless curiosity to the focused, but equally insatiable questioning of a trained researcher at the peak of their intellectual prowess?

Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? How did it all begin? How will it end? Why is there anything at all? Why, why, why? Why, indeed?

As the inimitable and ever quotable Richard Feynman once remarked in an interview, “Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” This omnivorous curiosity has driven us since the dawn of self-awareness, shaping our culture, our values, and our future. I worry, though, that all too often we reward conformity and punish curiosity, particularly in formal education; the deep and existential why deserves more than a superficial because.

Education and research: An unnecessary division

I’ve spent over half a century in U.S. educational institutions. Some might say I am a very slow learner, others might say it is good that I’ve been institutionalized. Perhaps they are right in both assessments.

Nevertheless, I remain amazed that we spend so much of our educational energy on the transfer and regurgitation of knowledge, rather than nurturing the curiosity that fuels learning. Make no mistake, knowledge is essential, the whetstone of a sharpened mind able to ask insightful questions and understand nuanced answers. However, learning can and should be an inevitable consequence of fueled curiosity, for a curious mind is passionate, indeed desperate, to know and understand.

I speak, of course, of the bicameral separation of education and research. (Here, I use research as a catholic placeholder for discovery and creative works in the sciences, engineering, and medicine, as well as in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.) All too often, formal education is presumed isomorphic with (sometimes) trained performers in classrooms and lecture halls, the sage on the stage, lecturing to passive and often restive students who have been told repeatedly and emphatically this is important and will be on the exam but not why it is interesting or why it might matter. In some, more enlightened contexts, this public education lives in more lively flipped classrooms and the halfway house of experiential learning.

Meanwhile, research thrives privately in laboratories, libraries, field stations, workshops, communities, and offices, largely isolated from public lecture halls and student habitudes. While our faculty members lead double lives—teachers in the classroom and seekers in the laboratory—many of our undergraduates see only an enervated and desiccated version of the vibrant life of the mind that so energizes and defines faculty.

Our students walk daily past buildings filled with research spaces, unaware of both the process and methods of research and scholarship, and of the passions that drive scholars to pursue answers to age-old questions. Then, we wonder why the public does not understand why fact-based reasoning and investment in basic research are so important to our nation’s future.

No bright line divides education and research, the known and the unknown. The great mosaic of human knowledge is fractal, with intriguing questions large and small, lurking everywhere, and few answers in the back of the proverbial textbook.

What is now transmitted knowledge was once breakthrough research, and when we separate the passion of discovery from the joy of learning, we diminish both. We want our students to slip unawares across the fractal edge of the known and the unknown, as they ask and seek answers to both old and new questions.

Expanding undergraduate research

All research universities, public and private, have organized undergraduate research programs (URP), where selected students work with faculty members. During my time at both Iowa and Utah, I have been impressed by the URPs run by Iowa’s Center for Research by Undergraduates (ICRU) and Utah’s Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR). More to the point, I always found it an unbridled joy to discuss research with students, as they explain problems, methodologies, and insights. It always reminds me that research and education are truly one, driven by curiosity.

Many of these URPs involve thousands of students, but few, other than at smaller institutions, seek to involve all their entering undergraduate students as a defining and distinguishing educational attribute of their research university experience. There are many reasons for this, some related to scalability, others to fiscal realities, and a few lost in the mists of institutional history, but we can and should do better.

Simply put, I believe every student should have the opportunity to experience the consilience of the known and the unknown, from the very first day on campus. Research universities not only transmit extant knowledge; they create new knowledge. We ask the whys, not just explain the answers. Given this, education at a research university can and should differ from that at even an elite college.

There are national exemplars of this integrative approach, notably the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) at the University of Texas at Austin and Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) at Georgia Tech. FRI currently enrolls over 900 first and second year students annually through 29 faculty-driven research “streams.” In contrast, VIP serves over 1,000 students at varying stages throughout their undergraduate careers in 70 faculty-driven multidisciplinary teams. These are scalable, highly successful programs with demonstrable outcomes. Student retention and graduation rates rise, diversity and inclusion grow, and research awareness—informed curiosity—thrives.

At the University of Utah, the College of Science is building on these insights to create an Undergraduate Research Initiative as a complement to our Office of Undergraduate Research, our Honors College, and our Office of Undergraduate Studies. I am excited about this future and its implications for our students.

Research is more than a metaphor for life. It is life grounded in the knowledge and ability to ask and answer questions that shape our individual and collective futures.

Coda

Oh yes, I know you were wondering. Why is the sky blue? Two words: Rayleigh scattering. Why is the grass green? Because chlorophyll, used in photosynthesis, absorbs red and blue wavelengths more efficiently, and the light reflected by plants is enriched in green wavelengths. How did it all begin? How will it end? Those are among the deepest and most profound questions of cosmology.