W.E.B. Du Bois Faculty Student Research Experience: A Social Justice Initiative at Farmingdale State College
November 20–21, 2015
New York University
Farmingdale State College (FSC), State University of New York is located on Long Island New York, approximately 30 miles east of New York City. Approximately 90 percent of the students at FSC commute, predominately from Long Island and the eastern boroughs of New York City (Brooklyn and Queens). FSC was founded in 1912 as an agricultural school and today has grown into a competitive comprehensive polytechnic college that offers 29 BS degrees. As a public institution of higher learning our mission is to offer affordable programs to students and provide them with a strong intellectual foundation, as well as the applied skills needed to be exemplary workers and global citizens.
Our 8,300 students are representative of the rich cultural tapestry of New York. We are racially diverse: 60% of our students are White, 16% are of Hispanic origin, 10% are Black or African American, 7% are Asian, and 2% identified as two or more races. Many of our students are from low socio-economic backgrounds, and approximately 51% of our students work full-time and 35% work part-time. As a result, many of our students have incomes too high to qualify for any financial aid, but yet, like many working poor Americans, often do not have access to all the resources and supplies they require for their studies. Social justice emphasizes unfettered access to economic, political, and social rights for all members of society. Therefore, it is important that institutions of higher learning ensure that all students have access to the tools they need to be successful. With this in mind, we initiated a pilot undergraduate research program called The W.E.B. Du Bois Faculty-Student Research Experience to fund an initiative in which students worked with faculty on research. Our project aimed to overcome a longstanding problem with undergraduate research (UR) programs by recruiting students who have generally been marginalized from these projects, such as students from lower socio-economic positions and from underrepresented groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, women, and people with disabilities.
At Farmingdale State College, our faculty mentor students working on research projects for coursework on a regular basis. However, we also aim to encourage the opposite relationship: students assisting faculty with their research endeavors. There is an extensive body of scholarly literature that has documented the benefits of students working with faculty on research. Students learn specific content-based knowledge, applied research skills and techniques, problem solving skills, and effective oral and written communication skills. Thus the skills learned through this experience aid in students’ overall professional development, as well as help FSC fulfill SUNY’s commitment to high graduation rates and timely completion. Research has shown that student involvement in UR programs is correlated with higher retention rates, higher grades, and higher graduation rates because this experience helps students bond with the institution (Nagda et al., 1998; Rayman & Brett, 1995; Sax, 1994; Verity et al., 2002).
This project specifically aimed to tackle the quagmire related to retention amongst our minority students. Research has clearly shown that participation in such programs by students from typically underrepresented groups increased connection to academic departments and the institution. Moreover, for this population, rigorous engagement in UR with a faculty mentor is positively correlated with improvement in student grades, retention rates, persistence to graduation, and motivation to pursue and succeed in graduate school (e.g., Shiyama & Hopkins, 2002; Barlow & Villarejo, 2004; National Research Council, 2003; Kuh et al., 2007). Unfortunately, minority student participation in UR programs nationally remains woefully low.
At FSC, and SUNY more broadly, we want students, particularly our minority students, to leave our institution feeling empowered and knowing that they attended a college that was invested in ensuring their success. According to Kuh et. al (2005), students who participated in UR programs considered the experience they had working alongside a faculty member the highlight of their undergraduate experience. This is an experience we want for all our students, particularly for those students, who because of the persistence of discrimination in our society, might have had negative experiences in educational institutions. Those negative experiences may have minimized their overall satisfaction with the collegiate academic experience.
The W.E.B. Du Bois Faculty Student Research Experience, launched in September 2015, was funded by a SUNY Explorations in Diversity and Academic Excellence grant. The yearlong program supported students and faculty while they collaborated on research. Student applications were solicited from students in the FSC Academic Student Achievement Program (ASAP), which is a TRiO-Student Support Services program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The program was designed to serve students who are first-generation college students, are from low socio-economic backgrounds, and students with disabilities. ASAP provides extraordinary support to this cohort of students. Faculty applicants, once selected, were paired with selected applicants from ASAP. Of the 10 students selected, six were African American, one was Hispanic, two were white women, one was a Pacific Islander, and one (an African American) was a person with disabilities.
In the fall semester, the students were prepared for their work as research assistants. First, the students received library research training. This course introduced students to scholarly research and gave them hands-on experience acquiring scholarly materials using various databases and library resources. In this process, they were able to meet and build rapport with FSC’s librarians. Second, the students were given a class on research with human subjects, research ethics, and the importance of Institutional Review Boards. Finally, all students received individualized training by their faculty mentors.
Once training was completed, students began work by assisting faculty with literature reviews and other research tasks. By the spring, the students were working one-on-one with their faculty mentors and carrying out more involved projects, including visiting research libraries and historical archives, attending conferences, and conducting data analysis. The spring semester was devoted to research and the preparation of results.
The W.E.B Du Bois Faculty Student Research Program hosted a conference on April 24, 2015, at Farmingdale State College. The conference was a culmination of all the hard work of the faculty and students who participated in this pilot UR program. In the morning, attendees walked through the student poster session and spoke with students about their research projects. Following the poster session, each guest (approximately 70 in all) attended one of two breakout sessions. In these oral presentations, faculty and their student research assistants delivered PowerPoint presentations about their research together. After a luncheon, there was a keynote address by Dr. Timothy Paglione.
Assessment and Evaluation
Assessment of the program was ongoing. The directors met regularly with faculty and students to provide them with support and monitor progress. At the conclusion of the program, the directors implemented various assessment tools to evaluate the success and limitations of the program. Three exit surveys were administered. Student and faculty participants in the pilot program were given separate web-based surveys, which were approved by the FSC Institutional Review Board. Conference participants also received a web-based survey asking them for feedback about the conference. Finally, the directors met with the participants individually and conducted non-structured exit interviews.
Overall, the program was successful. First, the research skills classes organized by the directors were beneficial for the students. All students who participated learned basic research skills, how to conduct scholarly library research, and how to create literature reviews. In addition, the students left the program with a certificate for completing the NIH training in Research with Human Subjects.
The student participants had a rewarding intellectual experience. They learned specific content-based knowledge, applied research skills and techniques, problem solving skills, and effective oral and written communication skills. The original proposal also highlighted the importance of creating programs that help students, particularly minority students, bond with their institution, faculty, and other students. Students who participated explained that the experience indeed helped them to bond with their faculty member and the institution as a whole. In fact, some of the students have declared that their faculty partner will continue to serve as a mentor as they move forward in their studies.
All the students who participated presented their own poster presentation at the FSC conference, and co-presented with their faculty mentor during panel sessions. This preparation has aided their professional development. In addition to this conference, the program supported two students who presented at national conferences, where one of these students won a second place prize for his poster. Another research team co-authored a paper together.
Undergraduate Research Programs and Social Justice
The principle of social justice must be central to the design of undergraduate research programs. Our program was designed not only to recruit students from underrepresented groups, but also to ensure their success in the program was not hampered by their socio-economic circumstances. When several of our students traveled to libraries, archives, and conferences, we paid their travel expenses, fees, and dues for membership in professional organizations. However, because our program was launched on a small scale, we were not able to meet all their financial needs.
In our program we saw first-hand how a student’s low socio-economic status can stymie their ability to participate in research opportunities. Privilege is invisible to people who have it. Educators and administrators often make class-based assumptions about their students. In our cohort, three students did not have computers in their homes, and their families could not buy them laptops, yet the professor’s work required access to this basic equipment. One professor asked their student to use “his laptop” on literature review-related tasks. This student did not own a laptop, and given his family’s low socio-economic background, the family could not afford to purchase one, and they had no computers at home. The only computers many of our students have access to are the computers on campus. Therefore, if they have been asked to complete tasks off campus, they cannot complete them. One research team planned to use Ipads/tablets to photograph documents while at an archive in New York City, and then use an annotation application such as Skitch to annotate the photos. The student researcher, however, did not own a tablet and was not able to purchase one. We have highlighted these examples to emphasize a major problem with UR programs.
A student’s low socio-economic status can thus impede their ability to participate in research opportunities because such students do not have access to the basic equipment needed for research. Moreover, their needs are often invisible to program directors/administrators and faculty, who often make assumptions about students’ resources. Funding should be made available to support students involved in research by making any and all resources available to them—such a provision infuses the principle of social justice into UR programs. UR programs are invaluable high impact forms of engaged pedagogy, and all students should have equal access to them.
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