Academy for Undergraduate Researchers
In 2009 Prof Reinout Meijboom proposed the establishment of a research academy for undergraduate students in Chemistry. The aim of the project was to provide undergraduate students with research exposure in order to transfer knowledge of best practice in chemistry (i.e. learning to become a chemist) and to prepare them for the post-graduate experience. Experimental experience as well as excitement about research can be provided through this project, while a stable, empowering environment is generated to enable students to excel in their studies and to continue with post-graduate studies. A pilot study conducted over the last two years was very successful and the Department is now ready to implement the Academy fully.
A number of problems exist in our society that prevents the best-possible education for our students, especially in a subject like chemistry where research is experimentally driven. Some of the areas we are trying to address by using undergraduate students to do research are: • Additional experimental training for students. The current experimental training in chemistry is not adequately preparing the students for a research experience due to time constraints. By enrolling undergraduate students in research projects, additional experimental training can take place. • Ensuring that students are engaged with their study full-time. Removal of several distracting factors (both financial and social) and replacing them with empowering factors that support the student’s studies increases chances of success in their studies. • Removal of social pressures to stop studies. Most of our undergraduates are first-generation university students. The social environment (parents, friends) does not realize what a university degree entails, and sees it as ‘school’. Our students experience tremendous pressures from their home environment to ‘stop going to school and start working’. By providing these students work that is (intellectually) supporting their studies, they are able to negotiate these pressures.
Rationale and motivation
We see research as a means to further develop our profile in our demonstrated areas of interest - chemistry being one discipline where UJ has already demonstrated its ability to generate local profile. In order to be recognized as a centre of excellence in sciences, it is necessary to provide additional training experience to undergraduate students. An undergraduate research program will not only distinguish us from the rest of the educational and research market, but will also build on our strengths. The program will improve skills development as well as the attitude and knowledge of the students involved. A large number of students find it financially necessary to work a job in their spare time, which typically does not provide them with experience in the area they are studying. It would benefit these students tremendously if they were given an opportunity to participate in research, rather than work as waiters, not only from a skills development point of view but also from a CV building point of view. A job as researcher on campus takes place in a secure, safe and well-known environment. The experience gained will clearly distinguish UJ graduates from those of other universities in South Africa. Additionally, early exposure to research – as well as being treated like researchers – motivates students to enrol for postgraduate studies. Since the number of post-graduate students in chemistry is declining nationwide, this is of critical importance to the future growth of the Chemistry Department.
Undergraduate students (second year BSc) are employed as temporary researchers in the Department of Chemistry. These students are expected to treat their research project as a job and are being paid and treated accordingly. Predetermined hours, so as not to interfere with their studies, are agreedon so they work at expected times. The projects allocated to these students are of a sufficiently (experimentally) simple nature to enable them to generate enough results for a publication (if necessary several of these projects can be combined to form a larger publication). This exposes the students to a research environment, as well as offering first-hand experience with the various tools necessary for chemistry research. As can be expected, a lot of time is needed to teach/ supervise these students. Various post-graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and previous year’s students act as role models. Additional to the necessary motivation these role models provide, a lot of personal attention can thus be dedicated to the students, which facilitates learning on their side. All in all, this creates a home away from home for the undergraduates, as well as a readily available knowledge pool that can be used when a student is struggling with a certain subject.