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Year of Undergraduate Research

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Walking on campus it is nearly impossible to miss the YOUR signs plastered to any building or space available. While the YOUR logo seems to be covering campus, many do not know what it is for and how it came to be. To uncover YOUR, I caught up with one of the main people behind it: Colin Shaw, Ph.D., Director of the Undergraduate Scholars Program and professor in the Department of Earth Sciences.

 

What is YOUR?

YOUR is an acronym that stands for Year of Undergraduate Research. Every year MSU picks a theme, the last being the university’s 125th anniversary and a few years earlier it was the Year of Engaged Leadership. 

It began when MSU put in a bid in 2016 to host the 34th Annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research in March of 2020. MSU ended up winning the bid, and as a result, President Waded Cruzado wanted to dedicate the academic year leading up to the conference to a Year of Undergraduate Research. “The president really likes these year-long celebrations. It’s a really good way to bring the campus together.” Shaw elaborated, “Essentially what it consists of is monthly events and monthly focuses highlighting the different aspects of undergraduate research leading up to NCUR.” Each month has its own theme, ranging from Undergraduate Research in the Arts, Humanities and Interdisciplinary Studies in October to Research at the University of the Yellowstone™ in February. A full schedule of these events can be found at montana.edu/your.

What is NCUR?

NCUR is the National Conference of Undergraduate Research. It started at the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1987 and has continued to grow ever since. “NCUR creates a unique environment for the celebration and promotion of undergraduate student achievement; provides models of exemplary research, scholarship, and creative activity; and helps to improve the state of undergraduate education,” as described by their website, www.cur.org. The annual conference now pulls in 3,500 to 4,000 students each year from a variety of disciplines to showcase participants’ research through “posters, oral presentations, visual arts and performances.”

MSU will host the conference over a three-day span starting March 26 and ending on March 28. During this time, classes will be canceled at MSU, but students are encouraged to participate in the conference or attend conference events. Shaw voiced, “We would like to have 400 MSU students present at NCUR. We will cover the cost of registration, and we want all undergraduate students [doing research] here to submit an abstract.” They are also seeking hundreds of student volunteers to help with planning, organizing and putting on NCUR.

Undergraduate Research at MSU

Undergraduate Research is a relatively new concept in academia. Shaw estimated that it started in the early 1980’s and that MSU was one of the first universities to get behind it by creating a program dedicated to undergraduate research in 1984, the Undergraduate Scholars Program or USP. Shaw explained, “USP is a program to fund, facilitate and help students carry out research projects with a faculty mentor. I kind of think of it as a mini National Science Foundation. Students write proposals to the USP and we review those proposals. We have a panel of experts so those reading the proposals are knowledgeable in the area the student is proposing to work in. Then we select the most worthy proposals. We fund and provide students to carry out the research. So it is a great way for students to get involved in the full arc of research from proposing or thinking up an idea, writing a proposal to sell your idea to a funding agency and carrying out the research.” Another great aspect of the USP is that it provides funding to students interested in doing research, which allows for students to use the money as either a stipend or a way to offset research costs. Each year it is estimated that about 1 million dollars goes directly towards undergraduate research at MSU, and the USP is estimated to account for 20 percent of that by funding approximately 200 MSU students.

While the USP does a great deal for funding undergraduate research at MSU, most of the funding for undergraduates comes from individual faculty member’s grants. Just like at every other research institution, faculty members at MSU write and apply for grants through large national agencies such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institute of Health. Faculty members that write these grants, also known as principal investigators (PI’s), often ask for funding for undergraduates to be involved in their lab. This allows for PI’s to hire undergraduates to get involved in their research.

Shaw spoke to MSU’s involvement in undergraduate research, saying, “It’s the unique intersection in the type of institution we are. We are a research intensive institution in that we have developed a national reputation for doing leading research, 130 million dollars of federal funding for research, and that intersects with a primarily undergraduate institution. We are an institution that has a high proportion of undergraduates. For us it makes sense to combine those two things, excellence in research and undergraduates.” As a result, MSU is routinely classified as a very highly active research university.

How to Get Involved

For students looking to get involved in undergraduate research, Shaw first recommends they contact USP. “We are the largest and the most diverse in terms of the fields we cover. We can help you find other programs very easily, so it is a great place to come get some information,” Shaw said. Another tip he mentioned was to make connections with faculty whose research you may be interested in. After all, much of the research funding comes from individual faculty members. If a student is looking to get involved with NCUR as either a research participant or a volunteer there is a student link on the YOUR site mentioned earlier with an NCUR student link coming soon.