Professor David Gonzales firmly believes in hands-on experience and research at the undergraduate level.
Having undergraduate students do real-world research is key to developing professionalism and a passion for the field – for both students and faculty – say a Geosciences professor and a former student in the January/February issue of The Professional Geologist, the official magazine of the American Institute of Professional Geologists.
“The trial-by-fire experience gained through two years of original research helped develop the scientific philosophy and skills that I apply daily in my budding career as a geologist,” writes Jake Cammack (Geology, '11) in “The Benefits of Research in Undergraduate Education: Perspectives From a Teacher and a Student.” “The process of conducting original research at the undergraduate level helped make me a more competent geologist and a scientist.”
Doing actual research in the field as undergraduates means students “can apply knowledge and skills they have learned in classes to assess actual problems,” writes Professor of Geosciences David Gonzales in the article, adding, “For those of us who promote the Liberal Arts education, research is also a useful tool to help students develop a broader perspective about the role of science in our communities.”
From 2009 to 2012, Gonzales and a group of students, including Cammack, in his "Igneous & Metamorphic Petrology" course studied the Navajo Volcanic field, an area of extinct volcanoes along the northeast edge of Colorado Plateau, mostly in Arizona and New Mexico with a small part in southwestern Colorado.
With the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation, the students got to use state-of-the-art analytical instruments with instruction from researchers at the Arizona State University, New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, University of New Mexico, and the United States Geological Survey in Denver.
"This is real science,” says Gonzales of the project – and undergraduate research in general. "We ask them to take the next step, from undergraduate students to undergraduate scientists. If they can do the research and learn the difference between book learning and applied scientific learning, then we've made a real contribution to the field."
In the article, Gonzales outlines his perspective on how performing research in the field with professionals impacted students. He also urges more faculty to integrate research into their coursework and programs – for both the students' and their own sakes. The introduction to the article cites a 2005 study that revealed that “only 1% of a sampling of geoscience faculty in the United States has used research in their curriculum.”
“For those teachers who have a passion for a certain topic, but feel bridled by the classroom routine, I encourage you to engage in a research project with students,” he writes. “This activity can open up new ideas and passions in the instructor, and keep us alert to current trends that will help teach the next generations of geoscientists.”
And those professional benefits go both ways, adds Cammack. “The research I conducted as an undergraduate has had a profound impact on my career path as a geologist,” he writes. “Skills that I gained in scientific writing and presentation, data collection, and data management have been applied in several internships and positions.”
Learn more about Department of Geosciences.
Read “The Benefits of Research in Undergraduate Education: Perspectives From a Teacher and a Student” [pdf]