With fall in full swing, colleges and universities across the country have welcomed to their campuses a fresh crop of eager new students, ready to embark on their higher-education adventure.
Greeting these bright-eyed young men and women is the traditional complement of professors, classes, books, new friends and the excitement of discovery.
For a few of these young degree-seekers though, there’s an even deeper experience in store: the opportunity, as undergraduates, to actively participate in research.
Traditionally the exclusive realm of graduate studies, research opportunities are now emerging for undergraduates at a select few U.S. universities. One is Creighton University, named for a fourth consecutive year as a top school for undergraduate research/creative projects by U.S. News & World Report.
In 2013, Creighton established a Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (CURAS). Now, hundreds of the school’s undergrads engage in research projects each year.
The benefits, administrators and faculty say, are significant – and compelling to young collegians seeking a richer experience in their undergraduate years.
“It’s an opportunity to explore different passions, discover something new and contribute to a field of knowledge,” said Juliane Strauss-Soukup, PhD, Creighton’s CURAS director and chemistry professor.
“It’s a uniquely collaborative and incredibly enriching experience, and students have one-on-one mentorship with top faculty.”
The opportunity begins early at Creighton. Many students start research projects as early as their freshman year, building a portfolio of experience throughout their undergraduate years.
Caity Ewers was one such student.
Multitalented and interested in many fields of study, she arrived at Creighton “eager to get involved in every way possible,” she said.
Like so many others on the cusp of her college career, however, she struggled with pinpointing a major.
Until, that is, she encountered Erin Averett, PhD, associate professor of archaeology in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Averett met with the freshman and explained how her archaeology program could be the perfect fit for her.
“Caity is very well-rounded, and she didn’t quite know what she wanted to do,” Averett said. “Her parents wanted her to consider a business degree, and she liked math and yet also had an interest in history.
“Archaeology is great, because you can approach it from so many ways – art history, history, excavation, digital imaging, coding, data analysis. It allows students to embrace that well-roundedness.”
Ewers was convinced, especially when she heard about the opportunities and paths that could be available to her. One of those was a summer research trip to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where a dig site teeming with thousands of fragments of small figurines and statues awaited.
With Averett’s help, she applied for and received a CURAS research grant to travel to Athienou-Malloura, the site of a 3,000-year-old religious shrine and ground zero for the dig. Averett is assistant director of the Athienou Archaeological Project and has been excavating in the Mediterranean since 1997.
Ewers worked the following summer cataloging artifacts, organizing their storage, compiling stratigraphic unit reports, and researching the nature and significance of the objects and imagery found at the site.
“Expeditions like these are such poignant growth experiences for students,” Strauss-Soukup said, “and they very keenly demonstrate the value of undergraduate research as a high-impact educational practice.”
The next summer, Ewers received a National Science Foundation grant to return to Athienou, this time as a student of the project’s field school. She learned the technical aspects of excavation and took classes from the dig’s staff members, including archaeologists, anthropologists, a conservator, an architectural historian, a chemist and an archaeological illustrator.
She got firsthand experience in the cutting edge of archaeology, as Creighton’s program embraces digital technology and is helping to pioneer the use of scanning and imaging at dig sites to create three-dimensional models and 3D prints of artifacts back on campus.
Ewers also pursued her own research – a digital humanities study of limestone statuettes depicting the goddess Artemis – and presented a paper on the subject at this year’s meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Francisco. All as an undergraduate.
Averett said such research experiences at Creighton enable students to learn much more than their chosen discipline. They learn to take initiative, make decisions, engage in analysis and critical thinking – and that’s applicable everywhere, from the sciences to the business world, she said.
Ewers agreed. “I got exposure to professors and graduate students from diverse academic backgrounds, and they offered me the kind of invaluable advice that can’t be had from textbooks or university websites, and that helped me to begin solidifying my postgraduate plans,” she said.
“I also gained experience working in a team, and that was more valuable than any group project I had ever been assigned.”
While remarkable, Ewers’ experience is not unique at Creighton. Nearly 200 of the university’s undergraduate students present their findings at national and regional scholarly conferences each year.
Across Creighton’s campus, almost a third of all undergraduate students participate in independent research or scholarly work.
The percentage is even higher in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences, where nearly half of students are engaged in research.
Bridget Keegan, PhD, an English professor and that college’s dean, said there is tremendous value in these early research opportunities.
“All students benefit from partnering with faculty to discover new knowledge,” she said. “By involving yourself in research within any field as an undergraduate, you set yourself apart when applying for graduate school, national research scholarships, internships and career opportunities.”