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ETSU research symposium showcases hand-on learning

SAM WATSON • Mar 28, 2007 at 11:48 AM

JOHNSON CITY - Undergraduates at East Tennessee State University increasingly are becoming involved in original research projects, and results of that work are under review this week at the Centre at Millennium Park.

"I think it's great preparation for further education, like if I go into a master's program," Jessica Jarnigan, a senior Midway Scholar in ETSU's Honors College, said Wednesday after presenting her project at ETSU's Undergraduate Student Research Symposium.

"I think it just opens a lot of doors. You meet a lot of new people who can help you with research projects, and it just gives you a greater insight into what research in your field is about."

Jarnigan, whose major is public health with a concentration in health administration, studied what female patients look for when they select primary care physicians and which characteristics they consider important in a physician.

"I found that most patients want a physician who has great personal skills and clinical skills, and they also feel that race is not an important factor when selecting their physicians," she said. "I found conflicting answers on whether the gender is important. Some say it is. Some say it's not."

A noncompetitive forum for students to discuss and defend their projects and methods, Wednesday's symposium featured a variety of topics in social sciences, education and business; sciences and technology; and arts and humanities.

"One of the things we are very happy about is that it's a very wide range," said Dr. Frosty Levy, director of ETSU's Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Office. "We just heard from someone who's working with young children who have sensory perception problems.

"Next door is the science session, and they've had talks on choosing a physician, on fossils of plants at the Gray site. So there's tremendous diversity."

Levy said undergraduate research affords students firsthand understanding of their fields.

"As a student, you get used to sitting in classes, and you become sort of calloused to listening to lectures," he said. "If you take a topic that you really enjoy and you get involved in it and are working with a faculty member, you have your own project that you own and you're more interested.

"You end up doing a different level of study."

Original research also provides a different perspective than a traditional term paper.

"With term papers, you usually are reading what other people did," Levy said. "You're reading their work and putting it together - maybe coming up with a hypothesis. But in the research aspect, you are primarily trying to learn something that no one else has ever done."

Undergraduate research also reaches a population of students that graduate work would not.

"I think in a lot of ways it's more important, because a lot of students don't go on to the graduate level," Levy said. "So it gives them a better feel for what professionals do."

Lindsey Garth, a senior ETSU history major, conducted her study on minority retention at ETSU, comparing students who participated in the retention programs to other students.

Working with ETSU's Equity and Diversity Office, her project was amid institutional review, and she hoped to initiate surveys for grade point average comparisons.

"My hypothesis is that students who did participate in the Preview and the Quest programs will have a positive correlation with higher grade point averages," she said.

A portion of ETSU's undergraduate research grows out of the Honors College, in which students are required to conduct a project. Some 400 students are involved in the college's various programs.

"The Honors College is all about providing exceptional opportunities for undergraduate education at ETSU," Dean Rebecca Pyles said. "We have found over the years, both through our honors students and through very interested and involved students, that a major undergraduate research project is just a superb opportunity to get hands-on experience in their disciplines."

Some undergraduate participants in Wednesday's forum also are scheduled to present their work today in the Appalachian Student Research Forum, a larger event featuring projects from graduate students, medical students and resident physicians, at the Millennium Centre.

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