By Mike Catabay

Students who shine, and other tales on Undergraduate Research

How do you convince an undergrad student to take up extra research over the summer break? No mean feat if you ask me. The sun is out, the days are long and warm and there are social events on every night of the week.

There are however, those inspirational students, who take on the extra curricula Undergraduate Research without a hint of hesitation. Excited by the opportunities, they take it in their stride. I am disappointed I was never one, but I am forever inspired by those who are.

Elizabeth Hitches is one of those students. Smart, graceful, effervescent, but also very passionate about her degree and her undergraduate research. Studying a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Mathematics and English, and a Bachelor of Education, Elizabeth is passionate about education, particularly inclusive education and undertook a Research Internship over the summer. Elizabeth was kind enough to present at the Undergraduate Research Staff and Students Collaborations held at Macquarie last month, and I was lucky enough to pick her brains.

Why did you choose education?

I used to volunteer in high school at a math workshop and I really loved helping students with maths. It was really fulfilling to see students gain greater confidence in their ability. That feeling is why I chose to study education. A positive educational experience is so important and I loved the idea that I could be a part of helping students to achieve their full potential and enjoy their educational journey.

What made you decide to take on Undergraduate Research?

During my studies in education, I found it really interesting to see how research had shaped our current ways of thinking about education, and the way in which we go about the processes of learning and teaching. I had read a journal article that discussed research showing that teachers’ expectations for their students’ achievement, can actually affect the students’ level of achievement. This finding was incredibly important and impacting upon the field of education, and the article had made me wonder about what other variables are at play. I had wanted to look at research as a potential future career, but outside of reading articles, I didn’t know what educational research really involved and if I would be suited to it. I applied for a research internship because I wanted to gain a better understanding of educational research. I also wanted to broaden my knowledge of inclusive education.  The internship did both for me and it was incredibly beneficial to my current and future studies. I gained more from the experience than I ever would have imaged.

How has Undergraduate Research enhanced your learning experience?

It was an incredible opportunity to gain insight into what research in education entails, and the internship not only showed me the processes that researchers undertake, but enabled me to be actively engaged in current research, developing hands-on experience. Working with Dr Stuart Woodcock whose passions lie in the same area as mine was absolutely amazing and so enjoyable. It was interesting to see the way in which the concepts that I had learnt throughout my studies were actually being applied and further explored in current research. It was fascinating, however, to learn about concepts and perspectives that I had never come across in my regular studies, such as attribution theory, and to see what is being expanded upon and explored in research happening right now. Not only did the internship deepen my understanding of educational concepts and build a strong foundation for my further studies at an undergraduate level, but it reinforced that research is a path that I wish to follow in the future.

What have you learnt from your research?

In terms of the research itself, I learnt how research is conducted, the ways in which data can be collected and interpreted, and then how it is communicated with regard to the actual implications of the findings – answering ‘what does it mean for our current practices?’ and ‘what questions do we need to answer next?’. The experience taught me the nature of research: that no research venture is an island entire of itself, and neither is the researcher (to appropriate Donne’s poetic line). To be involved with research is to be a part of an international community who engage with and build upon the current foundations of our knowledge. Research becomes a platform from which positive change can occur, such as the movement of inclusive education.

How did you find the Undergraduate Research Showcase?

The showcase was a really enjoyable event. It was interesting to hear about the other research initiatives that students are involved in around the university and the successes and challenges of their experiences. For me it was a wonderful opportunity to share my own experience and to be able to share how positive and beneficial it has been, not only to my current studies, but also for my future as I pursue research as a potential career. The internship experience thoroughly exceeded my expectations with regards to how much I would learn, enjoy and how actively engaged in the research process I could be. It is important that those who enable such programs understand how beneficial they are, and how much these experiences are appreciated by undergraduate students; the showcase was the perfect way to really say thank you, not only to my supervisor for his time and knowledge, but to all who make undergraduate research at the university possible.

How have you grown through your undergraduate research?

The research internship has reinforced my passion to continue to improve the quality of the educational experiences of students with chronic illness and disability, but it has also shown me that educational research is the pathway I can take to achieve this! Undergraduate research has enabled me to see what research would be like as a future career, and the positive impacts that can come from this field of study.

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