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Student-centered, project-based education continues to thrive at ASU

student and professor looking at white board
November 12, 2013

91 percent of ASU undergrads work closely with faculty on projects

During an accreditation visit to Arizona State University, a visiting professor was astounded to learn that more than 90 percent of ASU degree recipients have worked on individual projects with faculty. How is that possible, he asked, with a student population so large?

The fact that it’s nearly impossible to get an ASU degree without having worked closely with a faculty member – on a thesis, capstone or research project, internship or guided reading project – is a testament to the values that are a big part of the university.

ASU President Michael Crow has included undergraduates in his science policy seminar classes for years, and has individually mentored young Obama Scholars. Barry Ritchie, vice provost of academic personnel for the university and also a physics professor, currently has four undergraduate students working with him on research projects. Mitzi Montoya, dean of the College of Technology and Innovation, teaches a project-based course and is so well-known that first-year students feel comfortable meeting with her to pitch their innovative ideas.

“We’re a very different type of university, very focused on research and on the individual student,” says Ritchie. “Many deans are involved with undergraduate students, which is unusual. That’s the expectation we have, for administrators who are faculty, to pass on their knowledge through individual, one-on-one contact with students.

“It’s part of being a student-centered university and also a major research university. We recruit very capable students, some with incredible academic ability, and they are very curious and eager to learn. We want to involve them in our work.”

According to the ASU Office of Institutional Analysis, 6,386 of the 6,989 undergraduate degree recipients in spring 2013 – or 91 percent  had participated in individual study or research projects with faculty.

The College of Technology and Innovation (CTI) requires a capstone project for graduation; Barrett, the Honors College requires a thesis; College of Nursing and Health Innovation students all participate in clinical work; and most students at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College work with faculty individually on student teaching or other projects.

But the emphasis on internships, hands-on research and problem-solving in small groups permeates the curriculum in colleges throughout the university.

Hands-on journalism

At the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, students participate in the award-winning Cronkite NewsWatch, producing a 30-minute broadcast four days a week, working with assistant dean Mark Lodato and professor Sue Green. They also produce individual, in-depth projects in the Southwest Borderlands Initiative and in Cronkite News Service.

“They get a lot of one-on-one as part of the experience, as they cover public policy issues large and small, just as they would in a professional newsroom,” says Steve Elliott, professor of practice who oversees the Cronkite News Service. “I work with them on developing story ideas, refining reporting plans and executing the final product.”

Research a big part of Life Sciences

In the School of Life Sciences, within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, research is such a big part of the program that they have developed SOLUR, a three-level research program for undergraduates in which they progress from apprentice to researcher to fellow. The school also is launching a new search tool for undergrads to find one-on-one research opportunities. Students can list research topics that interest them and find opportunities to work with faculty mentors who are experts in their fields.

Kevin McGraw, director of undergraduate research for SOLUR and senior sustainability scientist, sometimes works with more than 20 undergraduates at a time. He involves his graduate students as direct mentors, but also meets with the undergrads individually.

Regents’ Professor Jane Maienschein has been a thesis adviser for more than 50 Biology and Society undergraduates, and currently is working with another five students. President’s Professor Jennifer Fewell and professor Ron Rutowski, a leading biologist, work closely with SOLUR students.

“Students don’t have to write a thesis or be in a lab, but they have to do something independent to understand what research is about,” Maienschein says. “What is it like to ask one ‘driving question’ and discover something new? What is it like to struggle to explain why it matters? These are all parts of research, and learning to do them brings skills that will serve in any professional field.”

Physics with the vice provost

Some ASU students are hungry for the chance to get into a lab, not willing to wait until they have some college courses under their belt before they get their hands dirty. Brianna Thorpe, a freshman physics major, already is working in Ritchie’s subatomic physics lab, learning the ropes, finding out how to program on a Linux system in the C++ language. Todd Hodges, now a physics sophomore, sent an email to Ritchie last spring asking about space in his lab.

“We met up shortly after that and discussed my background, what my future plans were and what I was hoping to get out of the lab, and I was brought on as a research assistant,” says Hodges. “I am currently working on the development of a device called a triplet polarimeter, which uses a phenomenon called triplet production to determine the polarization of photons.

“His direct mentorship is very helpful, as is the experience of working in the lab alongside graduate students and research faculty. I supplement my class learning by seeing how the topics covered in class begin to play a role in the actual work that researchers do. I also learn about topics that have not yet been covered in my coursework, making them seem much more familiar.”

CTI dean works with students

At CTI, Montoya listens to freshmen pitch their business ideas or solutions to a challenge as she co-leads the CTI 101 class. She created and teaches a “MAKE Your Ideas Happen” class to allow students to earn credit for working on their big ideas, while getting the tools and mentorship needed to launch the ideas faster.

“I personally connect with each team of students as a mentor throughout the semester and even longer,” she says. “I connect them to other faculty or industry partners, as well, who can be a resource and help further their ideas.”

CTI senior Mentor Dida, majoring in electronics engineering technologies, says “CTI is a source of inspiration for many students because it is a college where we are not silent about things that matter. Through Dean Montoya’s leadership, I got involved with amazing programs on campus. We work toward real-world solutions and making those positive changes happen.”

Cody Van Cleve, a CTI engineering freshman, says Montoya has connected him to valuable contacts while he has been in the process of developing his own consumer products.

“She also speaks to us directly as a class, and I feel very fortunate to be in an environment where my team and I can work with her weekly,” says Van Cleve. “Where else would an undergraduate student get an opportunity like this?”

Business students engage with real world

Across the W. P. Carey School of Business, in every major, faculty devise projects that enmesh students in the real world. The school has internships for credit and a required capstone course with applied projects in every major. Tim Desch, assistant dean for undergraduate admissions, will direct two students’ honors theses this year.

Regents’ Professor Kerry Smith, a high-profile environmental economist, is working with an undergraduate on a project about why the overall household demand for water in the Valley is declining, even though more people are moving here. Altaf Ahmad, clinical assistant professor in information systems, is working with a student who is creating a Facebook application that allows users to manage and share gift registries from various stores’ websites.

At the Morrison School of Agribusiness, students are doing a live case project on merchandising options and marketing strategies for an independent food market chain. Another class is doing a research project on a sauce for a local food company, evaluating the sauce through market observation, face-to-face interviews and data analysis. Faculty work closely with students on both projects.

In Computer Information Systems, CIS seniors break into teams for a required capstone project and work on a project for a real company for one semester. Each team works with a different company on a specialized project.

“We want students to experience the messiness of execution,” says clinical assistant professor Timothy Olsen, who teaches the capstone class. “When we teach students concepts in classes, most of the homework and test assignments are pretty clear-cut and there are fairly good directions. But in the real world, there are political problems and integration problems and learning curves, and lots of reasons why execution is difficult.”

Sustainability, archaeology students reach out internationally

In the School of Sustainability, students take on individual projects with the City of Phoenix and other municipalities, to develop problem-solving skills and the ability to collaborate successfully with experts and stakeholders. Undergraduates even collaborate with students from Leuphana University in Germany, in the new “Global Classroom” project. Along with biology students, they work on solution-oriented sustainability projects in the Phoenix/Tempe area and in Hamburg/Lueneburg.

Each semester, around 60 undergraduates participate in faculty-directed research projects in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Archaeology professor Michael E. Smith, a Mesoamerican specialist, takes students into the field in Mexico to do excavation and lab work and directs them in comparative analyses of ancient and modern cities. In his Tempe campus lab, students do tasks ranging from data entry and computerized drawings of artifacts and excavations to mapping and GIS analysis of historical sites.

Individual projects, study are key part of music and arts

At the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, faculty members are known for guiding students in individual projects and performance pieces, some of which take place in other locales. Nancy Serwint, associate professor of art history, worked closely over the summer with undergraduate Jennifer Brandon, whom she invited to participate in the Princeton University Cyprus Expedition in Cyprus. Mary Hood, associate professor of printmaking, is working with undergraduate Christine Adams to organize and implement an international exhibition debuting in San Francisco.

Noted composer and music professor James DeMars, whose works have been performed all over the world, is working individually with a talented music theory senior who only recently decided to switch his focus to composition.

Engineering student projects benefit communities

Some students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering pursue an entrepreneurial path, forming companies and providing solutions to real world problems as part of the Engineering in Community Service Projects (EPICS) network. Students in EPICS develop projects for nonprofit organizations worldwide, such as designing and building a sustainable lighting system for schools in Fiji that do not have access to fuels and electricity.

Engineering students in the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (FURI) develop an idea under the mentorship of an engineering doctoral student or faculty member, then apply for funding. Once accepted, they perform research, attend workshops, prepare research summaries and participate in the research symposium. Many FURI participants have gone on to apply their unique experience to work in industry, as well as graduate studies in engineering, medicine, law and other disciplines.

Nursing students work in clinics, hospital settings

Students in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation have clinical rotations and internships that include working alongside clinical faculty at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, caring for Arizona’s veterans. They also work in hospital settings like the Mayo Clinic and Banner Health Systems, and in ASU’s high-tech simulation lab.

All senior nursing students complete a capstone project, working in pairs with a faculty member to do research on an issue or topic they’ve encountered during their rotations or classes, with the goal of improving nursing care.

Public Programs students partner with City of Phoenix

In the College of Public Programs, students have ample opportunity to work with faculty on their research projects, often using the City of Phoenix as their classroom. Danielle Wallace, assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, is looking at whether changes in abandoned buildings affect surrounding crime rates. Students code massive numbers of photos of abandoned buildings to create large data sets, and find creative ways to look at time trends and develop an understanding of the data.

Nicole Darnall, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and the School of Sustainability, has students working on a policy analysis project assessing the benefits of a potential City of Phoenix ordinance that would eliminate restrictions by homeowners' associations on the use of native species in homeowners' landscapes.

Colleges at Lake Havasu require capstone

At ASU’s newest campus, the Colleges at Lake Havasu City, a year-long senior capstone experience is required of all students. Students complete six credit hours of individualized instruction or internship. They are expected to undertake a significant project that culminates in a research paper, honors thesis, essay, presentation or similar product. The first class of seniors will graduate this spring.

Psychology faculty members Scott McIntyre and Eylin Palamaro Munsell each are working individually with five students, McIntyre on supervised research and Munsell on internships. Three of Munsell’s students are working with bereaved families at Beacon of Hope Hospice, which provides services to terminally ill patients and their families. Another is doing community outreach at Interagency, and another will begin an internship with the school psychologist at Havasu Unified School District.