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Commencement is a big deal. Caps thrown in the air. Proud parents. Wearing a medieval gown with a swagger. But there’s another annual event that is, for me, the real crowing end-of-year moment. It’s when I get to see what students have been up to with their research projects or, more accurately, when I get to hear what it means to them.

At our college, this event was born years ago during a faculty workshop on engaging students in research, scholarship, and creativity. The big surprise for the two dozen or so faculty from nearly all departments who attended: there was far more going on across campus than we realized. Let’s put on a show!

Now every spring we take over several rooms in the student center. Furniture is rearranged, a mongrel mix of room dividers, blackboards on wheels and tables are brought in. Students bring their posters or digital displays or chapbooks or, on occasion, theatre sets or costumes. Our dining service prepares especially tasty appetizers. A program is printed, a crew of volunteers guide students to the places where their posters go, and copious amounts of gooey gray putty are used to make them stick there. For a couple of hours faculty and students, administrators and guests can wander through, take a look, or pause to engage students in conversation about their work.

A first year student who did project on music as a form of protest in her first term seminar told me about swing bands in fascist Germany, the “singing revolutions” of the Baltic states, and why Kendrick Lamar’s work deserved a Pulitzer. A senior environmental studies major about to start a grad program in Iceland explained how flounder, arriving in ballast, have upset Arctic Char fisheries and what solutions might be available. Students learning about aesthetics pooled their photos in a digital project. A pair of students did a study on incorporating  patients’ spirituality into nursing practice. A double major in biochemistry and classics had a great poster about the story he’s writing as a way of exploring slavery in ancient Rome, adding footnotes to his fiction. He’d done science posters in the past and enjoyed the challenge of presenting a creative/researched project visually. Another student presented findings from her interdisciplinary research – anthropology, geography, and environmental science, all in one! – and I soon realized I’d had a hand in helping with the early stages of her project. An impressive number of young scientists dazzled me with their knowledge of things I have trouble even pronouncing. And on and on.

One student had two posters side-by-side. He would talk to passers-by about his religion thesis or turn around and describe early findings of a project we’ve been working on together this semester on how research (defined broadly) figures in students’ lives. We’re still analyzing the data we’ve gathered through a variety of methods and have to finish coding our interviews, but it has been a fun project. It’s fascinating to hear students talk about their own learning and hear from faculty what kind of transferable skills and habits of mind they hope students take with them when they graduate. One question we asked was how students (and faculty) feel about their research. Whether the field is chemistry, communication studies, or classics, two words emerged for both students and faculty: research is interesting. It’s also frustrating – and those feelings are fused together, inevitably paired in a continuum of emotions.

Between our research project and hearing students talk about theirs in a roomful of creativity and excitement, I’m encouraged that this kind of learning matters, that students feel ownership over their ideas, that they enjoy sharing them with others. In the day-to-day flurry of deadlines and obligations, frustration is what we see most often. Why can’t I find what I’m looking for? This database is so exasperating. How am I supposed to get this done in time? Doing triage at the reference desk or doing a session for a class that seems to be barely going through the motions, you might think it's just not working. But then you hear a student talk about their discoveries and it all comes into focus.  

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