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Immersion Science

ENCOURAGING UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH

Rensselaer undergraduates have many opportunities to do practical research, according to Prabhat Hajela, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. Through the Undergraduate Research Program at Rensselaer, students can do research just for the experience, they can earn academic credit, or they can work for pay. “Students who choose to attend a research university should not only get the benefits of a research-informed education, but should themselves be a part of the research enterprise,” says Hajela.

Typically, research experiences are sponsored by a faculty member and take place in that professor’s working lab. Edick’s course differs in that there’s a more formal application process and a systematic progression from learning techniques to doing one’s own project.

But the goals of student research are the same, says Hajela. “I hope our students develop a passion for self-study and discovery and exploration—qualities that I think will serve them well in life and will prepare them to confront the real challenges in almost any field of endeavor.”

Graduates of the Cancer Cell Biology Group have gone on to cancer research programs at top-notch universities such as the University of California at San Francisco, Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The benefits to students are many. Students can apply their classroom knowledge to actual problems, and conversely, they can use their laboratory savvy to understand classroom offerings at a deeper level. Research projects also allow closer interactions with Rensselaer faculty, relationships that are free from traditional classroom roles. Tangible experience, with its concomitant project- and time-management skill sets, is applicable to graduate study and to many careers. Finally, research develops critical thinking skills in an atmosphere that’s often deemed “fun.”



Marc Nudel and Lyndsey Duda prepare for microscopic
study of their cell cultures.
“Students who choose to attend a research university should not only get the benefits of a research-informed education, but should themselves be a part of the research enterprise,” says Hajela.
Indeed, the number of Rensselaer students seeking undergraduate research opportunities was up by 25 percent in the 2008-2009 academic year, according to Hajela. “Our students are coming in expecting this and our faculty is really taking on the challenge and engaging these students in research,” he says. “I think the systematic way in which George does it is a credit to him.

”Students who take Edick’s Introduction to Cell & Molecular Biology lab course, usually during the second semester of freshman year, are offered the opportunity to apply to the Cancer Cell Biology group. At that point, they’ve had a taste of lab work, even though it’s fairly scripted—similar to undergraduate laboratory science classes at any college or university. The students who apply for the more intensive lab training are the ones who are attracted to the more dynamic methods involved in hands-on learning.

“I actually like lab courses better than lectures. It makes more sense to me,” says junior Lyndsey Duda. “Labs require more than lectures,” says junior Erin Turk, who prefers participatory learning to the traditional college class.

LEARNING TO FAIL

The independent study course is not just more of the same didactic, albeit lab-based, education. During the first semester, students work through a set of more than 20 lab procedures. Second semester they start “playing”—Edick’s word—with potential projects. “That’s when both the student and I find out if it’s going to work,” Edick says, describing the experience as one of fumbling and grappling. “It’s the toughest semester. I consider it extraneous in terms of visible progress, but it’s the most important learning period.”

Students are given a considerable amount of freedom to test their own ideas. And yet, with that freedom comes the opportunity to fail.

Pyzocha is coming to the end of her second semester in the group. As she straightens her back and peers over her safety goggles, she admits that this is the fifth time she has done the very same two-week experiment. “It’s a decent chunk of time,” she says, shaking her head. “The first time, I just made so many errors. It didn’t work, and I didn’t know why.” At the time, she talked to the other group members and to Edick and uncovered several missteps, in particular, forgetting to add a necessary solution. It was something easily fixed and an error she won’t repeat. “When you make mistakes, you never forget them,” she says now.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.