5/20/2014 Daniel R. Porterfield

The Power of Hands-on Inquiry

This magazine article is part of Spring 2014 / Issue 77
  • 14 04 11 spring research fair mh 5
A highlight of spring at Franklin & Marshall is the research fair, where students present posters and give short talks about the research they’ve undertaken over the past year in disciplines ranging from microbiology to landscape architecture, ethnography to ecology, and politics to public health. It’s exciting to see how so many of our students have spent months exploring a question in incredible depth, and the intangible lessons they learn through that process.

Why does F&M create so many research opportunities for undergraduates? Because we know that students learn the most when they engage directly with knowledge creators in hands-on inquiry. Research projects with real-world import require students to connect advanced knowledge, theories and techniques to a concrete question.

It’s inspiring to see how much students learn beyond the deeper knowledge of a specific subject. Research enables students to pursue a hypothesis wherever it leads—even when the result is inconclusive—which instills a respect for intellectual integrity and the hard labor of getting something right. It is a reality of advanced learning and discovery that powerful inquiry often leads to dead ends, which is fine. True scholars don’t just try to find answers; their enduring job is to pose important questions.

It’s been rewarding to see this kind of growth in students like Jack Madden ’14, who as a sophomore analyzed data from an Australian radio telescope and discovered a rare, extragalactic pulsar. Designed to make it easier for astronomers to spot new pulsars amid the “background noise” telescopes detect, Jack’s senior honors project is assessing the effectiveness of an automated pulsar search algorithm.

Students also learn a great deal about the ethics of scholarship through research—from representing one’s findings accurately and acknowledging the work of others to interacting with other cultures respectfully. For example, Ariel Eland ’14 explored questions of ethnic, religious and political identity with Brazilian musicians, while several of our students are working directly with local Amish and Mennonite communities to foster interaction with modern medical resources.

For many of our students in the sciences, taking part in a nationally funded research project also underscores the value of intellectual collaboration—of working on one small part of a large jigsaw puzzle to advance global knowledge. Take Ryan Samuels ’14, who spent last summer studying volcanoes in New Mexico to help scientists understand what they are learning from the Mars Global Surveyor. Ryan’s work is helping clarify that some surface channels previously thought to have been etched by the flow of water were more likely created by volcanoes. Through this project, Ryan has joined the international community of scientists, including NASA researcher Jacob Bleacher '00, working to build our understanding of the geologic history of Mars.

That’s why F&M has been a national leader in engaging undergraduates in research, and why we’re continuing to expand opportunities for students to receive summer funding, travel grants, and support beyond graduation to help them publish the findings of their honors research. By educating the knowledge creators of tomorrow, we serve the greater good.
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