and students might be doing it already but just not have the language for
it,” says Connie Varnhagen, a psychology professor and academic director
of the Undergraduate Research Initiative at the University of Alberta.
In all its forms, such projects get students out of lecture seats and
engaged. “We have lots of testimonials from students who said it gave
them a greater connection” to their own learning and to university life
in general, says Joy Kirchner, university librarian at York University, who
is involved in the school’s annual undergraduate research fair and other
projects. According to Will Gage, associate vice-president, teaching and
learning, at York, “research teaches softer skills that really help, even if
a student isn’t going on to grad school or professional school, skills that
make them more employable and career-ready.”
Faculty can benefit, too: in a lab, an undergrad can be assigned exper-
imental work that may or may not pan out. A newcomer can bring fresh
insight to research and question basic assumptions.
And, since undergrads usually take an array of courses, they’re naturally more inclined to find interdisciplinary links. “We’re seeing new connections between faculty, and it is students that brought them together,”
says U of A’s Dr. Varnhagen. For universities, undergraduate research opportunities improve retention levels and help attract talented students.
“This becomes a brand component,” says Dr. Gage. Research-intensive
departments would be smart to promote that they offer high-level research experiences from day one, he says.
on a slushy day last February, Nick Zabara made the trek from
his new home in Waterloo, Ontario, to the northern edge of
“Pain anxiety can really affect how parents report pain in their kids,”
explains Mr. Zabara, who completed his psychology and professional
writing double major last spring. This work, which he did for his honours
thesis, tackles a fresh and promising avenue that others in the lab are now
looking into it.
For Mr. Zabara, the undergraduate years were crammed with such
projects. On top of the lab work, he did two years of volunteer writing and
editing for The Trauma & Mental Health Report blog (and got credit for his
work there via an independent studies course), had his writing published
in a textbook and presented at the research fair three times (he won an
award for his second-year poster).
His ultimate reward for all that work: landing one of just four spots
in the University of Waterloo’s coveted clinical psychology MA/PhD
program. Having beat out nearly 300 other applicants to land in that fast-paced program, he’s grateful to have seen the inside of a lab and done a
few literature reviews before entering graduate school. “This gave me a
leg up on my current grad work,” Mr. Zabara says.
It’s not just universities that are seeing the benefits of supporting undergraduate researchers, either. Some lucky students, particularly those in
the STEM fields, may qualify for $4,500 Student Research Awards from
the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. And most re-search-based organizations and institutions, such as hospitals, also offer
paid summer research internships.
Nor is the trend limited to the sciences. Education, business, journalism and fine-arts schools often offer hands-on projects that align well
with their subject matter. Mr. Zabara’s second-year professional writing
professor, for one, encouraged his students to get published – it’s how
Mr. Zabara ended up at York’s research fair in the first place.
But, fundamentally, most faculties – even those that offer research op-
“It’s hard to find an example where the research
portunities – operate under a traditional model of classroom lectures and
group seminars. “Research is something received for undergraduates,”
says TRU’s Dr. Garrett-Petts. “You learn about it but you don’t learn how
to do it. … You’re removed from it.”
Meanwhile, professors seldom talk about their own research projects
and processes in class. “We need to share our research. It’s important and
we don’t do it often enough,” says Dr. Varnhagen at U of A. Some programs
offer capstone projects, but many students don’t understand what they
entail and opt for other classes. This disconnect between the larger re-
search and teaching missions of the university and undergrads is changing ,
activity of undergraduates isn’t an afterthought, where
it’s not ghettoized or compartmentalized.”