everal years ago, Bonnie Klohn wanted to explore her passion for local, sustainable food by raising hens at her home in
Kamloops, B.C. But, in Kamloops, it’s illegal to raise chickens
in your backyard. So the first-year interdisciplinary studies
major asked her food systems professor if she could take the
issue to the city in lieu of a community project assignment.
Her instructor at Thompson Rivers University agreed to
the arrangement and, in the spring of 2007, Ms. Klohn went in
front of city council with a PowerPoint presentation promoting the health and economic benefits of backyard chickens
and how they’d align with the city’s official plan. “I got turned down,”
she says. However, due to media coverage of her pitch, “things got crazy.
Hundreds of people interested in [the issue] contacted me.”
Ms. Klohn earned an A in the course and even founded a communi-
ty advocacy group. While drafting petitions and organizing a pilot study,
she met TRU tourism management faculty member Robin Reid. Together,
they did two original research projects on community gardens. For one of
them, Ms. Klohn secured $4,500 in funding from TRU’s Undergraduate
Research Experience Award Program.
Over the five years it took to complete her degree, Ms. Klohn aligned
most of her school assignments with her extracurricular research projects
and funded her education with research gigs. She did part-time work with
a Community-University Research Alliance project called Small Cities,
received travel funding and completed a capstone research project. Except for two summers spent tree planting, she took no other jobs. “If you
need money when you’re a student, and if you can get it for something that
will boost your resumé and help you get a job, why wouldn’t you do that?”
Asking questions, gathering data and writing up the results gave Ms.
Klohn both cash and skills. She now works for the Kamloops-based consulting firm Urban Systems doing “very research-oriented work” in urban
planning. “All the research I did as an undergrad helped me to get this
job,” she says.
Undergraduate students like Ms. Klohn who conduct or participate in
research projects find this work transforms their undergraduate years. In-
stead of taking in information passively, they’re digging for new data and
making their own connections. What’s more, the techniques they learn
doing research projects – defining an issue, collecting and synthesizing
data, communicating results – translate into job skills and offer valuable
preparation if they decide to pursue a graduate degree. These students
may even contribute to original academic knowledge.
The benefits are so alluring that many universities are pushing themselves to incorporate more research into the undergraduate experience.
“It’s becoming the new gold standard,” says Will Garrett-Petts, associate
vice-president of research and graduate studies at TRU.
The Council on Undergraduate Research in Washington, D.C., has
seen its membership grow by 40 percent over the last four years ( 11 Canadian universities are currently members). Universities are directing more
funding to this area, opening up undergraduate research offices, launching journals and studying the impact of it all. Early work is under way to
create a national undergraduate research association.
Even with these advances, universities can’t yet meet student demand.
The very structure of these institutions was built around undergrads not
doing research; it has no natural home, funding or curriculum model. “It’s
hard to find an example where the research activity of undergraduates
isn’t an afterthought, where it’s not ghettoized or compartmentalized,”
says Dr. Garrett-Petts.
undergraduate research in its simplest form involves a
student asking a question, looking at data and discussing the
findings in a research paper for a class assignment or as an
extra-curricular project – or being involved in some or all of that process
as an assistant to a professor.
Elizabeth Ambos, executive officer of the Council on Undergraduate
Research, says her organization defines this type of research as “anything
where there’s hands-on, inquiry-based learning.” This work happens in
the community, in labs and while doing class assignments. “Professors