Pioneers in the Pursuit of Original Knowledge
By Megan Scott '96 and Peter Bailley '74
Knox is recognized among its peers as a pioneer in the promotion of undergraduate student research and creative work. So how does a pioneer in this field continue to break new ground? It opens a center dedicated to research and advanced study.
"Knox is entering a new era, taking a step forward with the creation of the Center for Research and Advanced Study," says Lawrence Breitborde, dean of the College. "Our goal is to support a campus culture that engages faculty members and students equally as both learners and originators of knowledge, and the Center is our means to do this."
Why Knox has chosen to emphasize faculty-student collaboration in research and creative work harkens back to its commitment to teaching and learning.
"We think the best teachers are people who are also engaged in the pursuit of original ideas," says Breitborde. "And when students are engaged in this same pursuit-when they ask questions, explore and pursue answers to those questions, obtain support for their research, and then find the answers-we receive the strongest evidence that a Knox education is a quality education."
Original student research projects at Knox date back to the early 1920s and were formalized in the 1950s with the establishment of the College Honors program. The quality and breadth of student work has been recognized through external support since the 1960s from organizations like The Richter Memorial Trust, Ford Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, to name just a few. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation cited this record of external support as one of the reasons it provided Knox with a grant in 2008 to create the Center for Research and Advanced Study.
Long-time professor and administrator Stephen Bailey served as the Center's first director on a part-time basis, after retiring as associate dean of the College in January 2010. The Center opened its doors that same month, and Bailey established its role on campus, helping students pursue undergraduate research opportunities, lining up sources of funding for independent projects, overseeing the College Honors program, and working with students and faculty interested in community-based research. Bailey stepped down as director upon his retirement from the College in June.
Sandra Shumaker '95 took over for Bailey this fall, becoming the first full-time director of the Center. Formerly Knox's director of corporate and foundation relations, where she worked to secure grants and other funding for the College and its faculty, Mehl brought her role helping faculty secure research monies to the Center -- and this is where Knox's pioneering spirit breaks ground yet again.
"My job is threefold -- to coordinate the College's various research programs for students, to support faculty in finding external support for their research, and to integrate student and faculty research and creative work. Knox is unique among its peers in the broad scope of this endeavor," says Mehl, whose knowledge of current faculty research projects is an invaluable tool in her new role.
With 90 percent of Knox students engaging in independent study, research, or creative work during their Knox career and virtually every faculty member supervising at least one independent study a year, the Center has plenty of hands to carry on Knox's pioneering spirit.
First Independent Research Benefits Galesburg
One of the earliest recorded examples of in-depth undergraduate research was a faculty-led, community-based study conducted in the 1920s. Biology professor George Hunter's class in public health gathered data on Galesburg's notoriously inadequate municipal sanitation. The Illinois Academy of Science published an article, "A Preliminary Report on a Sanitary Survey of Galesburg, Illinois," co-authored by Hunter and his student Ella Devenny '23. Within the decade, Galesburg had embarked on a major municipal sewage control construction project.
Honors Takes Its Place
By the early 1950s, independent research, scholarship, and creative work were common, with the best work formalized and recognized in the College Honors Program, and "Honors" as we now know it-in-depth independent work, a faculty committee that includes an outside scholar, and an oral examination-was first formally introduced in the 1956-57 College catalog. On average, 30 students a year pursue Honors, with 31 seniors completing projects in the academic year ending in June 2010.
Faculty-Student Research Takes Flight
When Billy Wayne Geer arrived at Knox College in 1963, the teaching of biology, as well as teaching and learning across Knox's curriculum, would be forever changed. A true advocate of faculty-student collaboration, Geer brought more than 150 students into his "Fly Lab," where world-renowned research on the genes of the fruit fly was conducted, during his 35 years at Knox. More than 90 percent of his research assistants went on to medical school, graduate school, or employment in research and clinical laboratories. Geer and his colleagues in the sciences may have led the campus in faculty-student collaboration, but it quickly spread across campus. Today, students work with professors in all disciplines, from archaeological excavations in Jordan to collaborations in dance choreography and music orchestration.
Richter, Ford, McNair Bolster Research
With a faculty-student ratio of 12:1, independent study is expensive! Knox's commitment to providing independent study experiences was cited by the Richter Memorial Trust when it first awarded Knox a grant in 1968 -- grants that have been renewed regularly since then. Other important sources of student research funding have been the Ford Foundation Research Fellowship Program, which builds the next generation of scholar-teachers-students interested in careers in higher education that focus on both teaching and research. Acknowledging and enhancing Knox's success with low income, minority, and first-generation college students, the U.S. Department of Education has since 1992 awarded Ronald E. McNair Baccalaureate Achievement grants that help prepare students for research-intensive careers in academia.
Center for Research & Advanced Study
The impact of Knox's long-standing support for independent work is now unified under the newly created Center for Research and Advanced Study. The new Center, which officially "opened" in winter 2010, is built on Knox's longstanding emphasis on students' independent work and their collaboration with a faculty of scholar-teachers. Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Center brings together guidance that prepares students to pursue undergraduate research opportunities, lines up sources of funding for independent projects, oversees the College Honors program, and works with students interested in community-based research.