Fall 2011 / Spring 2012

Photo: Jacob Boll (BA ’12)
Photo: Jacob Boll (BA ’12)
Teachers at all levels struggle to find time to do authentic assessment. To meet this need, Fowler and Clemmons are using the capabilities of the iPad2 to develop an application called the “Integrated Portfolio Assessment System,” which allows teachers to record video and still photos, upload children’s work, provide comments on student behavior and performance, and organize data in a single program.

Taking the LAS Research Initiative

Moving beyond the classroom, the Undergraduate Research Mentorship Initiative is challenging students to learn more about the world and themselves.

Even as a senior, Jordan Compis was discovering new things about Columbia. During the Spring 2011 semester, she undertook a research project with Dr. Rami Gabriel, and the two worked together to examine advertisements from the U.S., France, and Egypt. As they compared the different psychological appeals of the ads across cultures and socioeconomic classes, it became apparent to Compis that this was a different kind of learning—an opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty member to see how the theoretical concepts she learned in the classroom manifest themselves in the real world.

“It helped me learn about what goes on behind ads,” Compis says of her research project with Dr. Gabriel, Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences. “It felt more like a culmination of what I had learned.” Compis and Dr. Gabriel’s project was a part of the Undergraduate Research Mentorship Initiative (URMI), an innovative program offered by the Office of the Dean in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The URMI is creating rich academic opportunities at Columbia by providing faculty members and students with the ability to work together on faculty members’ research or scholarship. An intensive collaboration, the initiative challenges students to take their learning beyond the classroom, and it allows faculty members to further their research and scholarly interests.

Providing undergraduate students with an opportunity to conduct high-level research with faculty was a priority for Dr. Deborah H. Holdstein, Dean of the School of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, when she came to Columbia in 2007. She recalls her own opportunity to do archival research for one of her professors as a pivotal experience in her own undergraduate career. “It was a remarkably enriching experience for me,” Dean Holdstein says. “That was exactly the experience I wanted to give to students at Columbia.” Since the program launched in the Fall of 2008 under the vision and direction of the Dean, more than twenty URMIs have been completed, with positive feedback from both faculty members and students.

In addition to earning credit toward graduation, working on an URMI project in complementary disciplines amplifies a student’s understanding of his or her chosen field of study. Compis, whose project with Dr. Gabriel was entitled “Advertisements and the Self,” says researching advertisements provided her with a unique opportunity to see how marketing and psychology work together. “They’re very harmonious,” the Marketing Communications graduate says. “It’s essential to understand psychology to understand advertising. The URMI experience allowed me to see that fully.”

Noting that Compis is as smart, mature, and hardworking as any graduate student, Dr. Gabriel found his collaboration with her to be not only personally rewarding, but also invaluable in advancing his own research. Compis’s work, as well as the contributions of two other students from Dr. Gabriel’s previous URMI projects, will be included in his forthcoming book, Why I Buy: Self, Taste, and Consumer Society in America, which is being published in the fall of 2012 by Intellect U.K. and distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press. Compis will be credited as having supported the research.

Indeed, the student-faculty relationship is central to the URMI experience. Students are not simply working for their professors; rather, they are actively participating in the development and progress of the project and getting feedback on their work. “I was able to go deeply into the subject and explore it while working with a fabulous mentor,” says Hannah Clemmons (BA ’11), who completed an URMI project on technology in the classroom last spring with Angela Fowler, Interim Director of the Early Childhood Education Program in the Education Department.

While research projects between faculty and students are fairly common at many institutions of higher education, the URMI’s pedagogical and participatory approach—an approach that often combines research and scholarship to the benefit of an undergraduate education as well as the professional world—makes it a rare program. ASL-English Interpretation sophomore Carrie Wheet, who undertook an URMI project during the Spring 2011 semester with Dr. James Van Manen, Assistant Professor in the Department of ASL-English Interpretation, found their partnership allowed her to grow as a student. “He offered just enough guidance that I knew what I needed to do; he left it open enough to bring my own ideas into the project,” Wheet says.

Their URMI project, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Allophones of the Phoneme E,” identified naturally occurring variations (allophones) of the ASL sign for the letter e. Variation in sign production from the standard forms that students are taught can cause problems with comprehension and interpretation. Dr. Van Manen, who is currently writing a book under the working title The Finger Spelling Code, hypothesized that if students were taught variations of signs, in addition to the standard forms, they would be able to acquire facility with the language much sooner than with traditional methods.

Dr. Van Manen began research on finger spelling years ago, but he needed to test his idea about student perception. His URMI project with Wheet gave him that opportunity. They first identified allophones of the letter e and conducted tests of ASL students in the classroom to see if the students recognized them.

After initial testing, students were presented with a short training video instructing them in different variations of the letter e, and then they were post-tested on identifying these allophones in context. Although the data are still being analyzed, initial findings indicate a substantial jump in the students’ recognition and understanding of the allophones. Dr. Van Manen hopes that these findings could lead to the development of new teaching strategies to help students in ASL programs across the country learn faster and increase their comprehension.

Like any research endeavor, the impact of URMI projects can extend well beyond initial expectations. Early Childhood Education Interim Director Angela Fowler’s URMI project, “How to Use Technology Effectively in the Classroom,” conducted with Hannah Clemmons, began as a survey of current and potential uses of iPads in the classroom. But as their research progressed, it evolved into a project to create a tangible solution for teachers to conduct “authentic assessment,” which is a series of criteria-referenced measurements teachers use to gauge a student’s progress—measurements that often look at a student’s progress in a holistic way, and provide them with the ability to demonstrate the skills and competencies they’ve learned.

Teachers at all levels struggle to find time to do authentic assessment. To meet this need, Fowler and Clemmons are using the capabilities of the iPad2 to develop an application called the “Integrated Portfolio Assessment System,” which allows teachers to record video and still photos, upload children’s work, provide comments on student behavior and performance, and organize data in a single program.

“This app makes it very easy to keep data for authentic assessment in one place,” Fowler says. “It cuts down the time to do authentic assessment to a fraction and makes it readily accessible in comprehensive ways.”

To get the app launched and available for purchase, Fowler and Clemmons are working with various individuals across campus, including a faculty member from the Department of Interactive Arts and Media at Columbia, as well as a graduate of that department. Fowler says she hopes the app will be available soon for school districts to purchase, once the app is released through an educational publisher.

From creating solutions to real-world problems to gaining a better understanding of their own academic, personal, and professional paths, the URMI is providing a unique kind of hands-on learning for faculty members and students at Columbia. With the initiative now entering its fourth year, Dean Holdstein is pleased with its evolution and the opportunities it is creating. And although the initiative is achieving what she hoped, Dean Holdstein sees room for growth. In the future, she plans to introduce a series of colloquia at which faculty members and students will share their research interests, raising awareness about the research being done in LAS and elsewhere—and potentially leading to future URMI projects.

The Dean also sees the URMI, as well as other LAS-related academic opportunities such as the Honors Program, as initiatives that appeal directly to the recruitment and retention of future Columbia students. “I think this is one of the many initiatives that illustrate to prospective students and parents that you can get an excellent education at Columbia College, whatever your major,” Dean Holdstein says. “The Undergraduate Mentorship Research Initiative, as well as the Honors Program, is additional proof to everyone that Columbia College Chicago is the place to be.”