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K-State Today

October 10, 2016

Learn more about undergraduate research at K-State during SPARK Week

Submitted by Peter Dorhout

Dear K-State students, faculty, and staff,

The Office of Undergraduate Research & Creative Inquiry is sponsoring SPARK Week Oct. 10-14 to celebrate undergraduate research and creative inquiry at K-State. Although I spend most of my time supporting the research, scholarly, and creative activity and discovery, or RSCAD, efforts of faculty, the topic of undergraduate RSCAD is never far from my mind. During my time as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, I saw how RSCAD energized students, enriched their experiences, and prepared them for careers even if it wasn't in their degree area. Many K-State faculty members do a great job of involving students in their work or engaging them in creating new knowledge somehow, and those who do also benefit from the energy and perspectives students bring to projects.

This summer, I returned to Champaign, Illinois, to help celebrate the career of one of my undergraduate research mentors, Professor Kenneth Suslick, who is retiring this year (a really old picture of me is in this collection of Suslick group photos). Ken was my undergraduate thesis advisor, and he taught me how exciting a career in chemistry could be. I learned about building a foundation of knowledge and skills (reading journal articles and performing a lot of chromatography) engaging team members to get my work done (buying pizza for the group when they helped me with a synthesis), and collaborating with engineers to build/fix our equipment (also involved buying pizza, because I broke it). Safety, proper data management, and project design were also ingrained in me. Ken taught me how I could be a great mentor to undergraduate students as well — I had mentored more than 30 undergraduates in my lab before becoming a full-time administrator.

Undergraduate research is not something that can only be done in laboratories in the sciences or engineering. We have hundreds of students engaged. Research is performed in offices, libraries, archives, studios, barns, pastures, and in homes. Examples of outstanding undergraduate researchers abound at K-State, but I want to tell you about four students working in two different areas.

Ellen Bodine and Ashley Schmelzle are both seniors in communication sciences and disorders. They are working with Briana Nelson Goff, professor in the School of Family Studies and Human Services in the College of Human Ecology. Nelson Goff and a colleague are editing a book for professionals on working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, based on their research project on parents of children with Down syndrome. Ellen and Ashley have been working on the project since they were sophomores. They started by coding more than 120 pages of parents' responses to a survey question, then incorporated the data into results for a chapter in Nelson Goff's book.

Both Ellen and Ashley say they've learned how to analyze qualitative data as they mastered the coding process, plus they've learned how the research process works. Both students plan to attend graduate school, and they feel better prepared as a result of working with Nelson Goff. In their classes, they have found research papers easier to write because they knew how to use databases and conduct literature reviews. They've also learned that research takes time — "longer than I thought," Ellen said — but that they find the prospect of improving the lives of children with Down syndrome and their parents exciting. These outstanding students will present their work at the National Council on Family Relations in Minneapolis later this fall. I know they'll do a great job.

The Chapman Center for Rural Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences offers practical internships for undergraduate researchers. You have probably heard about the "Going Home: Hidden Histories of the Flint Hills" exhibition at the Flint Hills Discovery Center. It's an excellent showcase for the work of many students mentored in the past decade by Bonnie Lynn-Sherow and MJ Morgan.

Mallory Harrell and Bo Lin are two of the Chapman Center's current interns. Lin's project is tracing the history of a disagreement between a Kansas monastic community and the Catholic Church the 1890s. Mallory is investigating a literature society in Clay Center that began as a general self-improvement knowledge club and evolved into an effort to build a library. The group was granted a Carnegie library in 1909. Mallory is cataloging several boxes of records for the Clay Center Historical Society and writing a history of the society.

Mallory said she gains "a sense of satisfaction" from contributing to the academic community along with a "sense of independence" from taking on her own research and building her skills in assessing documents and analyzing available information. Lin said he particularly appreciates how his work gives him new perspectives. "We grow up in one culture, and we have only one direction of thinking, but when you research different articles, data, times, and people, you have different perspectives on things. You don't use just one way to think about things."

I'm not sure I could do better than Lin in describing how RSCAD benefits undergraduate students. I'm proud of K-State for offering a range of opportunities to our students, and I'm grateful to OURCI for planning SPARK Week activities to both celebrate undergraduate RSCAD and inform more students how they can get involved. I'm looking forward my coffee and conversation session on Tuesday at 3:30 in the Union Little Theatre — it's not pizza, but then I haven't broken a spectrometer, either. I hope to have the chance to speak with many students as we explore the question of whether curiosity can save the world. Take a look at the schedule of events for the week and plan to attend as many as you can.

Thanks to our hard-working, curious undergraduate students and their faculty mentors for enhancing the RSCAD momentum at K-State.

Go Cats!

Peter K. Dorhout

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