Undergraduate research opportunities lacking on campus: Funding hands-on work experience essential

Research and mentorship opportunities are incredibly important to the majority of undergraduate students. However, due to budget restrictions within most faculties, as well as the growing number of interested students attending the University of Manitoba (U of M), these opportunities are not always as frequent as would benefit the student body.

As of now in the current faculty of science, awards that exist include: the Undergraduate Research Awards from the office of the vice-president (research and international); the NSERC Undergraduate Summer Research Awards (USRAs); and the faculty of science Undergraduate Research Awards, as well as a few others.

The competition for these awards is intense and few students actually meet the GPA eligibility requirements to apply, let alone acquire the revered opportunity. There are also cases when a researcher will have obtained generous grant funding, making it possible to independently fund a student’s research experience without the assistance of a research award. Unfortunately, the rate of occurrence for such opportunities is low, and grant funds are generally required to support existing and future projects, lab supplies, graduate students, as well as co-op students. Thus, the responsibility often lies with the student to secure a research award.

Hands-on research experience differs from undergraduate lab-based courses in many ways, and is an invaluable asset for students as well as for researchers. Professor Michele Piercey-Normore, associate dean of undergraduate studies for the faculty of science and a researcher in the department of biological sciences, insists that undergraduate research opportunities are extremely valuable to students and researchers alike. Piercey-Normore also believes that the field of science would probably not have as much research activity as it does were it not for funding currently available to students to participate in those research opportunities. The entire scientific methodology involves experiencing problem-solving firsthand, as well as the reflection and interpretation of results, including unexpected results – the latter of which is something seldom seen in course-based labs.

Unexpected results, accidental findings, and trial and error are often key components in the progression of scientific knowledge. Associate dean of research for the faculty of science and a researcher in the department of computer science, professor Peter Graham personally can’t think of an example where a student experienced undergraduate research and did not enjoy it. Graham emphasizes that there are peripheral skills that one would learn in a research-based environment that are not as easy to encounter in undergraduate courses, ranging from the learning of basic research techniques and technical skills to fundamental practices such as teamwork and time management.

Depending on which undergraduate program a student is interested in pursuing, these research opportunities may be based either at a lab bench, a computer, or in a field environment. Regardless, the skills learned are clearly invaluable as job skills that potential employers may scout for.

It’s true that some research opportunities may also be achieved through co-op work. It is also possible that certain students are having difficulty applying for co-op positions, primarily due to the fact that there have currently been cuts in government funding for those programs. One co-op student, who asked to remain anonymous, feels that there is not enough funding for all co-op students to complete their degree at a reasonable pace. The student claims that increases in funding would be greatly appreciated by students in general, as at present there are too few opportunities in Manitoba, which encourages students to look to out-of-province universities for them.

Co-op students are eligible to apply for the same awards as summer undergraduate research students and also for NSERC industrial USRAs to aid potential employers with the cost of taking on a student. However, the funding received is to be considered a work-term payment, rather than an additional payment to their work term. Furthermore, there is no support to cover the cost of living for students should they have no other choice than to take co-op positions out of province due to the limited placements in Manitoba.

The unnamed student also claims that increased funding would be much more attractive to students wishing to engage in research, as they would feel confident that they are receiving support to pursue hands-on experience while they are still students at the U of M. Romeo Verga, an electrical engineering student at the U of M, feels that research opportunities not only provide experience to the students participating, but also influence the production of practical technologies that contribute to society by improving the quality of life. According to Verga, in training more students in an experiential manner, we are investing in a brighter future.

Reflecting on the U of M’s bachelor of science medicine (B.Sc Med) program, student Jordyn Lerner stated that it provides a good model for research funding and that its research program is revered across Canada for the opportunities it provides students. The B.Sc Med program is a two-year student commitment where medical students dedicate the summers of their first and second years to research experience. Essentially, all professors who are interested in working with students submit online project proposals. Curious students approach those professors, and the faculty guarantees funding. In comparison, many other schools and faculties recommend that students generate their own funding if they are unable to receive an award, making it extremely difficult to attain those opportunities and experiences in research.

Students such as Carl Magarro, studying art history in the school of art, have a much harder time gaining experience in their academic field. Magarro claims that research would be beneficial for art history students if offered, as it would provide hands-on experience in the field. At most, art history students can look forward to seminar courses offered by the school of art that allows for this type of learning, but it’s incredibly rare and has not been offered for several years. Furthermore, the students would have a more enriched learning experience and be able to network through the contacts they make.

As more students are becoming interested in skilled degrees, the bar is set ever higher for competitive student experiences, and, the demand for increases in undergraduate student research funding is rising.

If you are interested in advocating for increased research funding in your faculty and department, if you are a student who is struggling with achieving the experience you need to find appropriate work after graduation, then discuss this issue with your faculty advisors. Students genuinely interested in securing more funding for experiential, undergraduate research opportunities need to speak up.