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UW-Eau Claire receives top national undergraduate research award

| Denise Olson

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is the top master’s-level university in the country in providing excellent undergraduate research programs, according to the Council on Undergraduate Research, which today announced the recipients of its prestigious Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishments.

“The achievements of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as a leader in undergraduate research set the institution apart from other finalists,” said Elizabeth Ambos, CUR executive officer, in a letter informing UW-Eau Claire of its award.

This is just the second year that CUR, which has about 900 member universities, has presented its AURA honors. The awards go to three schools — one each in the doctoral, master’s and baccalaureate categories.

Other universities receiving AURA honors were Furman University, which was recognized in the baccalaureate category, and Clemson University, which was recognized among doctoral universities.

“We are honored to receive this distinguished award from the Council on Undergraduate Research, which further establishes our national standing as a premier institution for undergraduate research,” said UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt. “This significant achievement validates decades of commitment from faculty, staff, administrators and students, all of whom have understood the far-reaching benefits of these experiences for our students, campus and community — benefits that now include real global impact.”

The Council on Undergraduate Research uses 12 criteria, its “Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research,” to determine the top universities that support and sustain highly effective undergraduate research environments. UW-Eau Claire surpassed expectations in five of the 12 areas, which earned the university the top national recognition for master’s-level institutions.

The five categories in which UW-Eau Claire surpassed expectations include campus mission and culture, administrative support, professional development opportunities, recognition for scholarly research and attention to student-centered issues in research activity.

The council also noted that UW-Eau Claire’s International Fellows Program addresses an important priority of the organization — globalization in undergraduate studies — and is a model program for internationalizing research. The unique program has given nearly $1 million in funding in the past six years to support more than 200 students in 68 research projects across 35 different countries.  In addition, 58 faculty mentors in 27 academic departments have gained international experience that they bring back to their students on campus.

Research: A part of UW-Eau Claire’s culture

For more than 50 years, since the first student-faculty co-authored publication, undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activity has flourished at UW-Eau Claire. It has expanded across disciplines, class rank and diverse student populations to become deeply rooted in the campus culture.

Undergraduate research is a cornerstone of the UW-Eau Claire educational experience, specified in the university’s mission statement as a signature pedagogy. It also is included in the current institutional guidepost goals, which call for the university to provide such high-impact experiential learning opportunities for all UW-Eau Claire students. The data shows that, on average over the past three years, 45 percent of Blugolds have had at least one in-depth scholarly research experience by the time they graduate. Those experiences include funded projects, research-based coursework, or presentation of findings at professional conferences or at CERCA, UW-Eau Claire’s annual Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity.

Dr. Karen Havholm, UW-Eau Claire’s assistant vice chancellor for research and director of the university’s Center of Excellence for Faculty and Undergraduate Student Research Collaboration, describes undergraduate research at UW-Eau Claire as central to the history and growth of the university.

“Undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activity have been embedded in the culture of UW-Eau Claire for decades,” Havholm said. “Building on years of grassroots activity in these areas, visionary faculty and administrators set up a central office in the 1980s to support and enhance faculty, staff and student scholarly activity,”

Havholm gives credit for paving the way to the CUR award to early leadership from faculty, administrators and staff who sought and received the designation from the UW System Board of Regents as the system’s Center of Excellence for Faculty and Undergraduate Student Research Collaboration in 1988. The goals of the center were to increase opportunities for collaborative student-faculty research, incorporate research results into the curriculum, identify and address issues requiring multidisciplinary solutions, and provide a public service by contributing to economic development.

Since that time, programming has been enhanced in a variety of ways to support broadening of student participation, Havholm said. There has been ongoing financial support from the university’s academic affairs division and the UW-Eau Claire Foundation for the center and its programs, which is housed in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP), she said.

“The most important funding contribution is from the students themselves, who have elected, through the Blugold Commitment differential tuition program, to pay extra in support of undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activity and other high-impact experiential learning opportunities,” Havholm said. “But none of this would matter without the ongoing hard work and passion of faculty and staff mentors who continually go above and beyond to provide these precious educational and professional experiences for our students.”

Data supports story of excellence

In addition to the story Havholm and her staff can tell, the CUR award application was made more impressive by the data that back up that story.

“We were limited in the number of words we could use to tell our story, but we could submit 10 pages of supporting data,” Havholm said. “Numbers provided by our institutional research staff helped to bolster data from the center and the International Fellows Program. We are grateful for their diligent work because the numbers we were able to provide really set us apart.”

The growth of undergraduate research and creative activity at UW-Eau Claire since 2006-07 can be seen in multiple data points, including the following:

  • The total number of projects of all kinds supported by the Center of Excellence for Faculty and Undergraduate Student Research Collaboration has increased 41 percent, with 809 projects in 2015-16.
  • The number of student presentations at UW-Eau Claire’s annual student research conference (CERCA) has increased 80 percent, with 313 projects presented by 595 students assisted by 172 mentors in 2016.
  • Overall funding for projects in all center programs has increased 60 percent, reaching $935,915 for 2015-16.

Faculty commitment is key

The prestigious honor from CUR and the culture of undergraduate research at UW-Eau Claire are possible only through the tireless work and dedication of the university’s faculty, Havholm said. Each year faculty collectively put in thousands of uncompensated hours mentoring their students in wide-ranging and complex scholarly projects.

For the past two years, the Center of Excellence for Faculty and Undergraduate Student Research Collaboration has recognized faculty mentors through its presentation of Excellence in Mentoring Awards in both senior and emerging mentor categories. The most recent recipients of the awards are Dr. David Lonzarich, professor of biology, and Dr. April Bleske-Rechek, professor of psychology.

Lonzarich, a faculty member since 1994, has worked with more than 250 students in a mentoring role.

“Good mentoring is partly about showing a sincere interest in and commitment to the welfare of the students in my lab, and modeling good habits,” Lonzarich said. “It is also building communities of learners, and most of all it is about recognizing that the outcomes I want for the students cannot solely be measured by the data they gather. In research, there are so many great adventures along the way, and I want my students to experience all of them. It’s like going to Disneyland for the 10th time with someone who has never gone before.”  

Over the course of her 13 years on campus, Bleske-Rechek has worked with more than 90 students in her lab, including six McNair scholars and four Blugold Fellows, and she has co-authored 18 peer-reviewed journal publications.

“As I engage my students in building their knowledge base and their understanding of science, I develop my own knowledge and skills to be a better teacher and researcher,” Bleske-Rechek said. “The students are always the best part of it all — their commitment, their enthusiasm, their curiosity and their love of learning.”

Decreasing the achievement gap through research

The increase in the number of students of color who participate in undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activity at UW-Eau Claire also is notable, Havholm said. The center’s Diversity Mentoring Program helps decrease the achievement gap for students of color by offering grants for student stipends and research expenses.

“Participation for this demographic has increased more than ten-fold since the program was instituted in 2005-06,” Havholm said.

The Center of Excellence for Faculty and Undergraduate Student Research Collaboration also encouraged and supported development of the Collegiate Bridge Research Experience to bring research opportunities to underserved and/or underrepresented student groups by embedding scholarly research into more first-year courses. Requiring research early on gives more students the opportunity to experience a high-impact practice that is generally reserved for students at the junior or senior level or students who are high performing, Havholm said, adding that the goal is to get a broader group of students engaged and prepared to participate in more traditional research with faculty during their junior and senior years.

Photo cutline: UW-Eau Claire undergraduate students work with Dr. Sanchita Hati, associate professor of chemistry. Hati and and Dr. Sudeep Bhattacharyay, assistant professor of chemistry, are among the many UW-Eau Claire faculty members working to provide real-world research experience to students.