Small Group Learning for 14,000 Undergrads

Clemson program tries to involve students in the research process and link them with the same professor for several semesters.
August 1, 2007

Paul Dawson, a professor of food science at Clemson University, has received a lot of attention in the last few months. As author of a study debunking the “five second rule” – the popular myth that food that falls on the floor or any other dirty surface is safe to eat if retrieved quickly – Dawson was mentioned in articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post and interviewed on-air by CNN and NPR.

But only in a local newspaper’s column about the media attention that Dawson was there a mention of where the idea for the study had come from and who had conducted much of the research. It was the result of the curiosity of students in “Testing Variables of Foods, Films, Antimicrobials and Surfaces Affecting Transfer and/or Survival of Bacteria,” a multi-semester undergraduate course.

One of Clemson’s Creative Inquiry groups, the course is part of a larger program that aims to teach students critical thinking and research skills. Started in 2005, the program has rapidly grown from about 40 projects with between 5 and 15 students each in the first semester to 205 this spring. Administrators hope to eventually expand the program to all of the university's 14,000 undergraduates.

Creative Inquiry projects generally last three or four semesters, with students usually beginning sequences during their sophomore or junior years. When they sign up, students commit to following a project through completion, working with the same group of students and the same faculty adviser for the entire duration of the project. Depending on the subject of a project, it may be limited to students in one major or a certain kind of major (unless a philosophy major is also pre-med, it's unlikely she'd have the basic knowledge and skills to sign up for a biology project) or open more broadly to students from across the university.

Projects vary greatly in how they're taught and how students get involved. Some groups, like Dawson's food science team, do lab or field research. Others culminate with a final design, like a recent plan to create a child-care center on campus, or with a performance, like one group's stage adaptation of the 14th century Italian work The Decameron, which they eventually staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Scotland.

Jeff Appling, associate dean of curriculum and the administrator, who oversees the program, said that Dawson’s paper in the Journal of Applied Microbiology was evidence that Creative Inquiry works, helping undergraduates engage in the scholarly process usually limited to faculty, graduate students and only a small fraction of top undergraduate students. Half of Clemson's undergraduates participate in an activity that could be considered Creative Inquiry, including students who do internships or co-ops.

Dawson’s students were the ones who came up with the premise of testing the “five second rule” and Doris Helms, Clemson’s provost, said the program’s mission is just that: to help students develop the skills to ask and answer their own questions. “Typically,” she said, “undergraduate research at Clemson has been for a semester or two, usually in science or engineering, with students trying to answer their faculty mentor’s questions.”

Students generally need a few semesters to be able to develop the sophisticated skills to be able to develop their own research ideas, she added, “and all too often by the time that happens it’s almost the end of a student’s senior year and they’ve run out of time to ask questions, especially if they’re not planning to go on to graduate school in the same field.”

Helms anticipates that about 250 projects will be under way in the fall, but her goal is to enroll all Clemson’s undergraduates in Creative Inquiry, which means the university will need to offer about 1,000 groups at any one time.

But expanding the program to reach all undergraduates won’t be easy. “It’s difficult to manufacture this for everyone,” Appling said. “Creative Inquiry is truly about scholarship … trying to involve students in the scholarly process for deep study in a subject area or even multidisciplinary research.”
Clemson sees the effort helping not just students, but professors. “Don’t do this to be a good citizen of the university,” Appling tells faculty members considering Creative Inquiry projects, “do this to make progress in your own scholarship.” The university gives faculty $2,500 per semester to spend on their groups or other research they are conducting. Depending on the department, leading a project may count toward professors' course load for the semester.

Michael LeMahieu, an assistant professor of English, taught the first semester of “The Contemporary Literature Project: Fictions of Fact and Value” in the spring and will continue the project with 11 undergraduates for the next two semesters.

The spring course “looked kind of like an honors course,” giving students the background and skills they needed, LeMahieu said. The fall semester will focus on the 1950s and next spring’s course will be on the 1960s. “I’m interested in fiction, so the students are working in cognate and tangent areas like drama, film and philosophy,” he said, explaining that students had chosen to work on specific topics in which they are most interested. “They’re filling in the background of my research, providing the cultural context."

As was also the case for the students working on the "five-second rule" in Dawson's food science lab, LeMahieu said the research his students are doing is "what a lot of faculty want to do with their own work but don’t have the time to get into."

Especially in the arts and humanities, where research is rare for students not in Clemson’s honors program, undergraduates are doing the kind of scholarship generally considered the domain of faculty and graduate students.

But in science and engineering, there is “not a tremendous difference between what we did before [Creative Inquiry] and what we do now,” said Bill Pennington, a chemistry professor and the Creative Inquiry liaison to the College of Engineering and Science. “We were ahead of the game just based on what we do,” he said, citing a long history of lab-based research required for the college’s undergraduate majors, “but we’ve certainly adapted to take more of a team approach, as Creative Inquiry encourages.”

Students capable of working in teams are just what employers are looking for, Helms said. “Employers want to hire graduates who are able to communicate, who have leadership skills, who work well in groups – the same things they need to do in Creative Inquiry groups.”

At a session where students presented posters about their projects, Appling was surprised to overhear a group of students talking not about what they did the night before or were planning to do that night, but about the research projects they wanted to do. “They were actually excited about planning new activities,” he said. “They were engaged in scholarship, it was just built into how they think, and it sounded just like the kind of conversation you’d hear walking into any faculty lounge around campus.”

Ashby B. Bodine, chair of the department of animal and veterinary science, said that “the old days of using rote method to teach” are gone, in part because “nowadays bosses don’t come up to you and have you recite a list from memory.”

Instead, “bosses come with a problem and they expect you or a team to solve it,” he said. “It’s problem solving under duress and that’s what we’re preparing our students for with Creative Inquiry … educating and training a whole new group of problem solvers.”

Bodine said that since he began leading Creative Inquiry groups, he has made his other classes more interactive, involving students to a much greater degree than he had in the past. LeMahieu said he had done the same: “I think for a lot of us, Creative Inquiry is opening up our minds to how we can better teach in all our classes.”

Appling led a group that worked on assessing the Creative Inquiry program’s effectiveness and Helms just completed a five-semester project to plan for the creation of a university-sponsored child-care center.

The students in Helms’s group came from across the university’s undergraduate schools and included architecture, business, early childhood education and public health majors. “They worked on everything from the health regulations to the curriculum, the architecture of the building and where to physically situate it, and the business plan,” she said. “Each student was able to work on his or her own specialty and contribute something to the group but also develop communication skills, leadership and critical thinking skills.”

Last week, Helms added, Clemson finalized a contract to build a child-care center based on the student group’s designs, evidence that “these projects can really make an impact far outside the classroom.”

For all the obvious signs of success, there are also the personal ones for faculty. Cindy Pury, a psychology professor who said she has always supervised student research projects, said that Creative Inquiry is “the best possible idea for both students and faculty.” It’s a great opportunity, she said, “to get to know the students and to develop real relationships with them … to see them grow over the course of a few semesters as their depth of knowledge developed.”

Helms said that for the first time in her 34 years of teaching (before becoming provost she was a biology professor at Clemson), when she wrote letters of recommendation for the students in her Creative Inquiry group who applied for law school, medical school and jobs, she “was able to fully assess the strengths and weaknesses of students that reached beyond just the grades they got in my class and whatever else I knew about them.”

She added, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had teaching. Lots of faculty are telling me the same thing.”


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