The other night I joined the summer honors students and their faculty mentors at a picnic given by Dean Jonathan Green. Unfortunately, I forgot to take any pictures that evening, so here’s one of Dean Green and students at another recent alfresco gathering.
Summer honors students work intensively with faculty mentors on campus for several weeks. Here are some of the topics our students and faculty are working on right now:
- A prosthetic hand suitable for use in the developing world. How can a design maximize function while minimizing cost?
- The “Beauty and the Beast” narrative as it has appeared in various languages and historical moments. Why does this particular narrative seems to be resonating so strongly in American culture at the start of the 21st century?
- Colo-rectal cancer cells. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how little I understood about the specifics of this work: suffice it to say that a couple of our students are deeply involved in understanding what affects the growth of these cells.
- Women in the Middle East. How do variables such as national wealth, strength of democratic institutions, educational attainment, and so on affect the welfare of women in some Middle Eastern case studies?
- AIDS in Africa. Haw effective have public-private partnerships been in addressing HIV/AIDS in Botswana?
And these are only the questions being asked by students I happened to talk with. There are other fascinating projects underway as well.
Walking home from the picnic, I found myself thinking about what makes this kind of undergraduate experience so powerful. (And it IS powerful; all sorts of research points to the impact that student-faculty research has on undergraduate learning.) Certainly, content is important. Students learn a great deal about specific topics during such programs and they also gain significant experience in the methods of their disciplines.
But I suspect that role modeling is at least equally important. During this summer program, students work side by side with faculty as research partners. And as they do so, they begin to see themselves not as students but as scholars. A new identity begins to take shape, their imaginations begin to form visions of what life as a professional researcher might be like, and they emerge from the experience with a new sense of their power to attack important problems and create knowledge. And that, I think, accounts for the wonderful vibrant energy that is so evident in talking with our summer honors students.
Personally, I never had this kind of experience as an undergraduate. For me, and for a great many faculty, that evolution took place in graduate school. What a privilege it is for these Sweet Briar students to get the kind of head start that this program offers!