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A student researcher discusses her poster with a faculty member

Students often think of STEM fields when they consider research, but a new initiative at San Francisco State hopes to expose more students to research in the classroom and outside it.

San Francisco State University

College campuses are hubs for research in a variety of fields, but many students are unaware of the opportunities available to them. To bridge this gap, staff at San Francisco State University, part of the California State University system, created a centralized hub that empowers students to plug in to high-impact practices and learning opportunities.

SF State Create hosts information related to research, scholarships and creative activities (RSCA), including available on- and off-campus jobs, events and gatherings information, and scholarships and award opportunities. The program also employs student ambassadors who lead a campus club and education for their peers.

The initiative both supports student development in opening their minds about what research could look like and motivates faculty to imagine new ways students can be involved in research inside the classroom and out.

What’s the need: Experiential learning is a cornerstone of many academic programs, helping provide hands-on training and career development that is key in students’ success after college.

A winter 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed, conducted by College Pulse, found that 29 percent of students are required to participate in undergraduate research and 52 percent are required to complete an internship experience.

However, not every student has equal access to experiential learning opportunities. First-generation students, for example, often lack the social capital to secure faculty-led research opportunities, and students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to take an unpaid position.

A 2019 survey at San Francisco State found only 12 percent of students recognized that they were doing research, despite a large majority of students doing course-based undergraduate research.

Two students demonstrate a robotic hand they designed to a faculty judge at a research symposium
Students present their work at a 2023 Science and Engineering research symposium at San Francisco State University.
San Francisco State University

Faculty and administrators identified a disconnect between what was actually happening and what students were aware of and could talk about as research experiences, says Kate Hamel, assistant dean of faculty development and scholarship in the College of Health and Social Sciences.

Campus leaders gathered together in fall 2019 to establish a centralized vision for research and experiential learning, helping students get connected to investigative, experiential and creative works across disciplines. The initiative officially launched in 2023–24, after a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How it works: SF Create has several spokes to its work: an online resource center that promotes opportunities and student leadership, faculty development, a curricular pathway, and funding for scholarship and research.

Students can browse available job and internships openings on the hub’s site, which are pulled from the college’s Handshake account, or peruse various resources for RSCA activities, including showcases, fellowships and institutional programs.

Additionally, the site serves faculty members by encouraging them to share their achievements in research and other creative projects, incorporating experiences into their classrooms and funding sources available. Alumni and employers are also encouraged to contribute, either by sharing programs they’re hosting or by partnering with the office to mentor students, offer a workshop or give a seminar, among other opportunities.

SF Create hosts seven paid student ambassadors, one from each academic college, to serve as near-peer mentors, student organization leaders and advisory board members for the program. This spring, ambassadors applied to create a research club, Create @ SF State, creating a formal avenue to host workshops and events to encourage their research-minded peers to engage. Ambassadors also provide insight and feedback to SF Create directors.

“We’re faculty; we know a lot about students, but it’s really great to have students tell us what they want,” says Gretchen LeBuhn, co-director of SF Create and a professor of biology.

Building Awareness

One of the goals of the hub, in addition to increasing access and visibility of opportunities, is to promote student engagement in research beyond the sciences. Often, students think that research is exclusive to STEM fields, but staff want students to be aware of how they can engage in research and learn research methods across fields.

Winter 2023 Student Voice data showed, among students who have participated in experiential learning, 43 percent believe the experience helped them realize they want a career in that field, and 33 percent said it helped them realize what tasks they enjoy.

Staffers also hope to build campus awareness of research already taking place. Poster showcases are one way students can spotlight their work, and faculty members can engage learners through facilitating assignments or devoting class time to visiting the showcase.

What’s next: Starting this fall, students can enroll in a research pathway, which provides transcript recognition for completing a sequence of research-focused courses in the student’s discipline and a presentation at a minimum of one research event. The initiative was inspired by something similar at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, and has two goals: to help students dig deeper and recognize their research experiences as well as create demand for research-based classes, motivating faculty to create more course options.

Incoming students next fall can also be paired with a mentor who is interested in creative works or research. Staff added an extra question to the current mentorship program’s intake questionnaire for mentees and mentors, with the opportunity to create facilitated programs for these mentorship pairs and potentially tap in to every single student at the university.

A student discusses his research poster with a faculty member
Students gain confidence and professional skills through creating and presenting their posters, and they can highlight on-campus research that inspires faculty and students.
San Francisco State University

Another element in the works is providing faculty development opportunities in partnership with the Center for Teaching and Learning. The center is well respected on campus, and its leaders are interested in promoting undergraduate research. Administrators hope to establish ways to encourage and equip faculty to build course-based undergraduate research and push students to participate in research.

SF Create will also launch a faculty mentor award program, recognizing those who have worked with students to create research opportunities and encourage others to join in the work.

Funding is also a critical piece of the hub’s focus. Printing a poster costs upward of $80 per student, which can be barrier to participation for students paying out of pocket and not something every faculty member or department can fund.

Directors will collect data on their initiatives to make SF Create a competitive applicant in federal grant programs.

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