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Undergraduate research makes it all add up for biology students

Dr. Jennifer Stoffel, UIU assistant professor of biology, loves when a student makes connections through research-based projects. Suddenly, it all comes together – lectures, labs and student-initiated learning start working together – and the student lights up with understanding.

Research-based projects at Upper Iowa University are the keys to success for many pursuing a degree in the sciences. Dr. Stoffel said she appreciates that at Upper Iowa, research requirements are embedded within the science curriculum. Students may elect to do research earlier in their academic career and receive credit for it.  Faculty are able to work with smaller groups of students or even one-to-one on the research projects.  The faculty can then facilitate discussions with the students and address misconceptions and challenge students to integrate ideas.

“Research-based projects are exciting because by doing research, students apply classroom experience,” said Stoffel. “Research allows students additional opportunities to practice the skills they will need in their careers, and it fosters their curiosity.”  Stoffel, an educator and researcher who presents at conferences, said she has spoken to many colleagues at universities around the country, about Upper Iowa’s education model and has found that Upper Iowa is one of the few institutions that has both required and optional research components in the curriculum.  At times, research projects conducted by students are also providing community service for organizations. For example, Upper Iowa biology students have recently worked with the Resource Conservation and Development Council, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources, as well as the local West Union, Iowa, recreation center.

“This is a valuable opportunity for all our students,” said Stoffel. “The students enjoy working with and helping others. They see how their projects can be research and service at the same time.”

When conducting a project, a student is paired with a faculty member who advises him/her when needed. Students are given the freedom to research a topic of their choice and they remain in charge of the project from beginning to end. The student collects the data whether in the field or the lab, and reports on the findings/outcome. “We want students to be independent with their projects,” said Stoffel, “but also able to know when to ask for help.” The science faculty make these projects a priority with each faculty member advising three to eight projects annually.

As a way to showcase their work, students can present their research to the general public and the UIU community during Homecoming week and can also present at various local conferences like the Iowa Academy of Science in the spring. However, before they earn academic credit, the student presents his/her findings to all capstone faculty in a formal conference-like setting. Stoffel said that she often hears from past advisees that this presentation of their work is one of their fondest academic experiences.

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