Breanne Briskey had put in the endless hours of research in the lab. She had endured the frustrating repetition of trial and error. Now it was time for the hard part. Now she had to stand in front of a group of strangers and talk about her research.
Briskey was one of 240 students participating in Elmhurst’s annual Undergraduate Research and Performance Showcase. Held in late spring, the Showcase is a forum for a broad range of student research presentations, artwork, and music and dance performances.
A biology major bound for medical school, Briskey reported on the results of her research into the viability of salmonella cells on typical kitchen surfaces. Her research had consumed large portions of her senior year. Now she was faced with the daunting task of reducing her study to a twenty-minute PowerPoint presentation. Briskey knew her stuff. Going into her presentation, that wasn’t the problem. She was concerned that once she got talking on the subject, she would run beyond her allotted time limit. “Stand up when I have one minute left,” she suggested to one friendly audience member on her way to the podium.
As it turned out, she need not have worried. Briskey confidently explained her research methods, walked her audience through the steps of her study, then laid out her findings. Among them: that salmonella thrives longer on plastic than on wood; that the abrasive scouring pads on scrubbing sponges may help inhibit the viability of salmonella in sponges; and that, left to their own devices, salmonella cells on kitchen tiles will thrive for as long as 191 days. After stating her conclusions, she worked in a pitch for improved food safety practices, then wrapped up almost precisely on time.
Like Briskey, most Elmhurst students navigated their presentations with aplomb. Still, the task of presenting one’s work is as daunting to some as the work itself.
“This is, for many of these students, the first public intellectual moment,” said Dean Michael J. Bell, as he took in some of the poster presentations on display in the Frick Center. “They are subjecting their work to public scrutiny, and that’s an important first step toward adult creativity as humanists and scientists and social scientists.”
Concentrated in one afternoon and in three campus buildings, the Undergraduate Research and Performance Showcase is a pageant celebrating the intellectual and creative life of Elmhurst students. The 240 students who participated in one recent year represented 16 academic departments, ranging from education to chemistry, from art to mathematics. Several students presented reports based not on academic work but on internships and other professional experiences. While nearly all the presenters were undergraduates, the College’s graduate programs in industrial/organizational psychology and supply chain management were represented as well.
A visitor to the Showcase could have listened to the performance of Ducks, a piece for four saxophones by student composer Peter Purin; or learned about an investigation by a team of student researchers into long-standing rumors of paranormal activity in the College’s Mill Theatre; or sat in on a military-geographical analysis of the Battle of Guadalcanal by student Carmella Burdi.
“The wide range of disciplines and experiences represented is key to the event’s success,” says Professor of Psychology Helga Noice.
“Other schools do this sort of thing, but often the focus is only on the sciences,” says Noice, who was largely responsible for launching the event in 2003. She was partly inspired by a similar program at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where she taught before coming to Elmhurst. “It’s important that we have so many departments involved here. Too often you can think that your group is the one doing the really serious work. But then you come here and see the quality of work the artists and other students are producing. It’s good for us and it’s good for the students, too. They might think their poster presentation is really great until they see what some of the others are doing. It sets the standard a little higher.”
One hundred eighty students participated in the inaugural event, and participation continues to increase. Some at the College are hoping the event can be expanded to cover a full day, allowing more students to participate. The Research and Performance Showcase fits into a growing trend in higher education to offer undergraduates the kinds of research opportunities once reserved for graduate students. Over the last decade or so, foundations have stepped forward to fund an increasing number of undergraduate research projects, including an interdisciplinary project at Elmhurst that investigated the potential impact of expanding O’Hare Airport. Supported by a $50,000 grant from the National Councils for Undergraduate Research and the Leslie E. Lancy Foundation, the project brought together students and faculty from 12 departments at Elmhurst to examine the proposed airport expansion from environmental, economic, political, and other points of view.
Such projects aim to introduce undergraduates to the practice of collaborative research. So too does the Research and Performance Showcase. “This is where the traditional listening and learning turns into a collaboration between teacher and student,” said Dean Bell. “It’s one of those core intellectual moments where students take responsibility for their own learning and step forward to see what they can do.”