A story I love to retell describes one of the first meetings of a Georgetown undergraduate course. The course was designed to have students work as a team to solve a practical problem faced by a nonprofit organization devoted to providing meals to poor children. How could the nonprofit increase the number of children served in a sustained fashion? The class was designed to be a real task, not one prepackaged, with designated readings and specified subtasks, to direct the students to a predetermined solution.
I’m told that students initially asked “shouldn’t we read something to help us identify a way forward?” Answer: “Yes; that’s probably a good idea.” Students: “How should we begin?” Answer: “I don’t know. That’s probably the first thing the group should discuss.” The lack of structure was first off-putting to the students, but at the end of the experience they were deeply appreciative of what they learned.
This episode reminded me of many experiences in the life of an academic, especially at times when one is taking on a new research project or new piece of scholarship. The way forward is not clear at the beginning. There are false starts. Initial ideas fail to serve; alternative approaches are examined. Perseverance is taught as a necessary ingredient of success.
The majority of the students now in higher education will live beyond 100 years; they will have multiple careers; they will reinvent their areas of expertise multiple times. There is increasing evidence that the knowledge and skills most valuable to graduates of higher education include abilities to assemble information in new areas, to synthesize knowledge from different perspectives, to invent new approaches to old problems, and to communicate the outcome in clear manner. These competencies will serve them throughout their lives.
These abilities are quite naturally built in research and scholarship within the academy. Research/Scholarship trains a nimble mind, one that can examine a problem from different perspectives, one that perseveres to reject ideas that don’t fit the problem and creates new ways to proceed – to create new knowledge, find solutions to previously unsolved problems.
How can we create an environment for all undergraduates to have such experiences, given the real need to prepare them for a long life of continuous learning? Data seem clear on two points. Graduates who have had multi-semester research projects evaluate their undergraduate years much more positively than those lacking that experience. Further, disciplines vary in their methods of scholarships; some do research in groups; some do research in a solitary mode. However, all of the disciplines have opportunities to transmit their ways of thinking to students effectively by offering students real research opportunities.
Georgetown already has a rich set of ways that undergraduates can gain research experience. The most recent Intellectual Life Report from the Main Campus Executive Faculty calls for building on this foundation. As the evidence mounts that students with long-term research experiences achieve greater success post-graduation, it makes sense for us to design alternative ways to achieve this. It deserves new attention.