SMU senior Andrew Lin spent a week in Washington, D.C., with two “rock stars.” He applies that term reverently to James G. Mead, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and Charles W. Potter, manager of the museum’s marine mammal collection. Lin worked with the renowned whale experts in July while collecting data for his Engaged Learning project comparing the anatomy of a 17-million-year-old beaked whale specimen with the Smithsonian’s modern whale bones and fossil specimens.The experience was “very hard and even kind of intimidating – speaking with people who have spent their whole lives working on whales and are legends in the field,” says Lin, a President’s Scholar majoring in geology and biology with a minor in chemistry. “Ultimately it was very rewarding because I learned so much about working with collections, photographing specimens and imaging programs.”
SMU’s Engaged Learning program challenges students to reach beyond the classroom in shaping their educations. The campuswide initiative comprises research, service, internships, creative activities and courses with community components. Fanning out across the globe, 100 undergraduates tackled significant projects under the Engaged Learning umbrella over the summer.
Students can either identify pressing issues and plot their own paths toward solutions or put their stamp on existing projects. Such flexibility suits SMU’s entrepreneurial students, according to Susan Kress, director of the Office of Engaged Learning. Established last year, the office serves as a clearinghouse for information about student engagement, as well as a link to the more than 30 campus organizations and 150 local and global community partners that offer avenues for academic inquiry, career development and civic involvement.
“Through Engaged Learning students have the opportunity to transfer the knowledge and skills of the classroom to real-life situations, learn from their experiences, reflect on them and use them as a basis for further learning,” says Kress.
More than 40 student-driven studies, including Lin’s, were deemed capstone level by a review committee. At the capstone level, students connect their SMU education to goal-oriented projects in the field.
“The project spans two academic years, typically junior and senior years,” says Kress. “It begins with an idea and proposal in the first year and project performance, presentation and publication in the second.”
Close collaboration with a faculty or staff mentor is a key facet of these high-level explorations. Mentors can structure projects to meet criteria for academic credit.
A final paper, report or creative product will be archived online in the SMU Digital Repository’s Engaged Learning Collections. Students can earn University Curriculum credits for Oral Communication and Capstone.
In Lin’s case, Louis Jacobs, a professor in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences and president of SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man, serves as his mentor. Lin’s Engaged Learning project qualifies as his senior research project in geology.
Leading the effort to identify common needs and increase research opportunities for students is SMU’s first Director of Undergraduate Research Bob Kehoe, an associate professor of physics and coordinator of the Undergraduate Research Assistantships (URA) program for the past two years.
Kehoe joined the University faculty in 2004 and is a member of the SMU team on the ATLAS Experiment, the largest detector in the Large Hadron Collider array at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. He contributed directly to the analysis published over the summer that observed a new particle consistent with the elusive Higgs boson “God particle.”
His own experience as an undergraduate researcher at Notre Dame informs his belief that a chance for hands-on discovery in a real-world environment “bridges the gap between the classroom and the external professional world and can be a very important stepping stone for students toward their careers.”
Michael McCarthy ’12 believes his Engaged Learning project launched his career on the right trajectory, calling it a “definite stepping stone” to a position as a business systems analyst for Epsilon, a marketing technology firm in Dallas.
“Now I’m expanding on the technical skill set I built at SMU, while learning how to manage client demands and building communication skills,” he explains.
For an Engaged Learning project, the senior major in statistics and mathematics analyzed data for Veterans Affairs in Dallas to evaluate home care support provided to veterans with spinal cord injuries.
“Through my project at the VA I learned how to devise a solution to a complex problem using data and how to manage a long-term multi-stage project,” he says. “Because of this experience, I entered into my role at Epsilon with a strong advantage, and it made the transition from college to industry much easier.”
– Patricia Ward