UW-Eau Claire in a class by itself when it comes to undergraduate research opportunities

| LeBrenda Street

When Dr. Leah Olson-McBride and Holly Hassemer found themselves paired together for a brainstorming session five years ago, they probably never dreamed they would create something that would put UW-Eau Claire in a class by itself.

But that’s exactly what Olson-McBride and Hassemer did when they developed the Collegiate Bridge Research Experience (CBRE).

Olson-McBride, chair and associate professor of social work, has a strong background in research. Holly Hassemer is director of the College Bridge Program and teaches 100-level general education classes. When they were tasked with coming up with ideas on how to make high-impact practices accessible to underserved and/or underrepresented students, they decided to integrate research projects into Hassemer's classes. While that may not sound like such a big deal, it really is.

Five years later, with the support of the university's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, their idea has grown into a successful undergraduate research program, the CBRE. No other college has a program like it. Period.

CBRE is a one-year academic program committed to providing support and opportunity for freshmen who are first-generation college students and/or students of color. Participants are admitted to the program because they demonstrate the potential to succeed and may need additional support as they transition to college.

Linking these students to research gives them the opportunity to experience a high-impact practice that is generally reserved for upperclassmen and academically high performing students. The goal is to get the students engaged in research early on so they are prepared to participate in more traditional research with faculty during their junior and senior years.

"Being involved with research as a freshman aimed me away from marketing sales to marketing analytics, which is more research based," said Garrett Doubleday, a junior marketing major.

Doubleday is participating in an undergraduate research program with Dr. Rebecca Wyland and Dr. Nancy Hanson-Rassmussen, assistant professors of management. They were approved for the International Fellowship Program and will continue their research this summer in Germany.

"I don’t think I would have sought out this opportunity or have been picked as a candidate if I weren’t involved in the CBRE program research," Garrett said.

CBRE requires students to take general education 100 in the fall and spring. Research is embedded into these classes, with two-thirds teaching transition skills and one-third research. In the fall, a faculty research mentor comes in to teach topics such as research methodology, how to ask research questions and research ethics. During the spring semester, students conduct research, analyze data and present their findings.

Class-generated research topics generally focus on student experiences. This year, students are researching the perception of student study locations and exploring experiences of students working on and off campus. The basic social science research methods that are taught can be used across all majors and in all disciplines of research.

"The research experience was really exciting, but it wasn't necessarily on the subject that I would have wanted since I'm a chemistry major," said junior Carly Boedhart. "Afterward, I started to search for a research project that interested me in my department, and having some sort of research experience already gave me an edge.”

Denise Kannegiesser, a sophomore psychology major, was so impacted by her CBRE experience that she returned for a second year, this time as a research mentor. Student research mentors, or lead researchers, are upperclassmen who have background in research methods. For Kannegiesser, it is another opportunity to grow as a student and develop leadership skills.

Part of her job is to prepare her group for the final component of their research efforts, presenting their findings at the Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity. The event highlights student research accomplishments and contributions to the academic community and is open to all disciplines. This year's event will be held April 25-29 in Davies Center.

"The presentation part and being at CERCA, talking to researchers — that is where the project culminates and students start to see that they did something valuable, something other freshmen are not doing," Hassemer said. 

In the two years of the CBRE program, Olson-McBride and Hassemer decided to implement the research program with one of two sections of general education 100 each year, using the other as a control group. This has enabled them to test the effectiveness of their program in regard to retention and engagement.

Compiling their research after the original cohort graduated, Hassemer and Olson-McBride discovered a significant difference between the two groups. The research showed 25 percent of the students who went through the program graduated in four years. No students graduated from the control group that did not participate. Of the CBRE students, 33 percent went on to participate in future research projects compared to no students from the control group.

"Students start to believe that they can do it and they are as smart as everyone else. They begin to realize these opportunities are accessible to them — study abroad, internships and other high-impact practices," Olson-McBride said.

After a McNair Program representative spoke to one of the CBRE classes, Goedhart decided to apply for the program and was accepted.  She is currently doing research with Dr. Bart Dahl, associate professor of chemistry. She also has plans to go to Russia with Dr. David Lewis, professor of chemistry, for a summer research project in 2017.

“I always had an interest in doing research during my undergraduate career, but I probably wouldn’t have felt confident asking about research projects or even applying for the McNair if I hadn’t had the experience that the Bridge Program gave me,” Goedhart said.

Olson-McBride served as the faculty research mentor for the first three years of the program, followed by Dr. Jerry Hoepner, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, who facilitated for one year. Now Hassemer is able to teach the research methods component on her own. Together they have written a paper on the CBRE program and its effectiveness. The paper, "Broadening Participation: Engaging Academically at-risk Freshmen in Undergraduate Research," will be published in the Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly.

CBRE is successfully providing support and opportunity to an underserved population of students that typically misses out on the benefits of high-impact experiences. Linking these student to research helps them become more engaged learners, positively impacts their self-perception and further engages them in undergraduate research opportunities.

Photo caption: Left to right, Carly Goedhart, Denise Kannegiesser, Holly Hassemer, Garrett Doubleday and Dr. Leah Olson-McBride pose on UW-Eau Claire's beloved bridge across the Chippewa River.