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A New Recipe for the Classroom Blends Teaching and Research

A unique teaching model at UNLV engages students in the classroom and empowers them beyond it.

Research  |  Nov 9, 2017  |  By Alexandra Karosas

Integrating research into the classroom helps students build presentation skills as well as learn material. Above, undergraduate Yana Ryjova presents her work at a research fair. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

When UNLV professor of anthropology Levent Atici was preparing course materials for a new semester a few years back, he took the opportunity to shake things up a bit. Instead of following a more traditional course structure that relies on lectures and exams, Atici introduced students to his passion.

“My work on human-environment interactions inspired me to engage students in research on issues affecting our community,” Atici said.

But how could this type of research integrate into a classroom setting? What would “teasearch” — a combination of teaching and research in the classroom environment — look like?

With the help of UNLV’s Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), Atici revamped his syllabus, tasking students with selecting their own novel research topics, conducting research independently or in small groups, and publicly presenting their results to cap off the semester. OUR also provided Atici with course-design resources; staff to guest-present to his classes; and workshops for students on subjects such as writing and public speaking.

The course was transformative.

“All of my students loved it, and many went above and beyond my expectations,” Atici said. “Even those who were hesitant at first gained confidence throughout the semester and soon took great pride in their work. Now I don’t want to teach any other way.”

Expanding Teasearch Efforts

OUR began integrating teaching and research at UNLV in 2015, shortly after the office opened. The history department and OUR had co-sponsored a fall guest speaker that year, John Wertheimer of Davidson College. Wertheimer spoke about teasearching and how he was publishing articles with students from the courses he’d integrated research into at his university. The talk inspired OUR to implement a similar approach at UNLV.

“Teaching and research are not mutually exclusive,” said Liam Frink, executive director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, “and you can have a high-level immersion in research while in a classroom, which engages undergraduates in a unique way.”

Given the swift proliferation of research-based courses around the U.S., according to a recent report from The National Academies Press titled “Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities,” Frink believes classroom undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) are important for non-STEM faculty to consider. By integrating research into the classroom experience for their students in a novel and meaningful format, faculty can provide research techniques and opportunities that may not be as accessible to their students otherwise.

UNLV history professor Miriam Melton-Villanueva represents a perfect case in point. For her, teasearch was the answer to her dilemma of demonstrating the practical aspects of historical research and engaging students more thoroughly with the learning material.

“Historical research is more archival-focused—learning about primary sources and thinking critically about where information and sources come from,” Melton-Villanueva said. Integrating primary-source research into her staple of classroom activities helped her students learn the history as well as how to question information presented to them, she said.

Melton-Villanueva had reached out to OUR to help get her started in her teasearching quest. After providing resources from his office, Frink connected her with Atici to learn firsthand the practical strategies that helped Atici get his students engaged with research in the classroom. Atici shared his syllabus and strategies for scaffolding research into stages, mentoring Melton-Villanueva to improve upon integrated course models and expand the number of history students competing in juried research competitions.

In their classes, ranging from freshman- to upper-level, students learn how to successfully design and carry out a research project through a combination of group work, related lectures, and OUR’s skill-building workshops. The model eliminates grades based predominantly on memorization-centered quizzes and exams. Instead, students earn their grades piece by piece through the completion of each part of the research project, from submitting an abstract to presenting at an OUR Undergraduate Research Forum as part of the final grade.

“We treat the students as scholars in this setting,” Melton-Villanueva said. “Through the research they’re conducting in our classrooms, they’re learning how to think independently and create knowledge just like traditional scholars.”

Benefits Beyond the Classroom

As is also the case for traditional scholars, teasearching students’ projects and outcomes have real-world applications. Many of these projects at UNLV are directly relevant to the Las Vegas community, addressing issues such as water conservation, food waste and availability, and cultural history relevant to the current sociopolitical climate. Organizations like the City of Las Vegas have discovered some teasearching students’ findings on homelessness in the area and contacted Atici to connect with his students and learn more. Student data has also been used to help UNLV achieve its current campus sustainability ratings.

And although their grades were based on research projects, these students have learned much more than the subjects they chose to study. Conducting and presenting research required them to gain writing skills, become versed in the ethics and methods of data collection, and learn how to think critically about the information they gathered. The students also received training in presenting and public speaking and gained experience in working collaboratively — especially valuable once they enter the professional realm.

“Completing this (type of) course has made me a more critical thinker and more knowledgeable about how to conduct research that can affect real change in my community,” said UNLV alumna Patricia Richards, who participated in one of Atici’s classes. “Gaining applicable real-world experience and making connections can be ‘the edge’ that students need when it comes to getting hired or starting a career.”

“I encourage other professors to consider this teaching method,” said UNLV senior Nitzan Barlev, another former student of Atici’s. “Integrating research into classroom learning provides a deeper knowledge of the material and a more comprehensive educational experience.”

But students aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of the teasearching model. Atici said that integrating research with his teaching has provided growth opportunities for him as well. The experience inspired him to apply for several grants he received, chair an international research symposium, develop a Ph.D. seminar, and author a book (currently under review).

“Before, my research informed my teaching,” Atici said. “But now my teaching is informing my research.”

Given all the benefits of teasearching, those who’ve leveraged and/or supported the model are working to help spread it across campus. OUR, for instance, will be hosting a workshop for interested faculty members in the spring on how to integrate research into their own courses. The office is also working on a starter kit with materials that can provide additional guidance to faculty as they begin the process.

“We are aiming to create a peer-to-peer training model in which faculty members help each other succeed with this method in their own classrooms,” Frink said. “Research-based teaching can be as enriching for them as it is for our students, so we hope it catches on."