Cutting Edge > Early Career > Developing a Research Program > Hancock case study

Dr. Greg Hancock, College of William and Mary

Most of the information on this page is from an interview with Carol Ormand that took place on October 18, 2005.
Greg Hancock in the field. Photo courtesy of Greg Hancock and the College of William and Mary.

Greg Hancock teaches in the geology department at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. The College of William and Mary, the second oldest college in the United States, is a small, public, liberal arts university (College of William and Mary, 2005), with an all-undergraduate geology department. At William and Mary, every geology major completes a senior research project, and every faculty member in the department is expected to contribute to supervising these projects. Each faculty member is also expected to maintain an externally-funded research program that will result in one or two peer-reviewed publications each year. With a teaching load of 1.5 to 3 classes per semester, maintaining this level of research activity is a challenge.

Getting Started

Greg is currently supervising three senior thesis projects, and over the years he has had anywhere from one to seven students working with him on research. Often, these students begin working with Greg the spring of their junior years and work through the summer, into their senior years.

How did he get this active research program going? When he first started teaching, Greg (like many new faculty members) found it hard to make time for research. He came up with a creative solution: incorporating small-scale research projects into an upper-level geology course. This provided simultaneous benefits to Greg's students and to him. Students experienced the process of doing science, which is one of the most effective ways to engage students in learning science [AAAS, 1990; CUSE-NAP, 1997]. At the same time, they did some of the initial exploration of research topics of interest to Greg. The time Greg spends on these projects thus serves double duty as time spent on teaching and on research. While this is not the only way Greg involves students in research projects, it is unusual enough to warrant further examination.

Description of the research project assignment

Greg assigns semester-long research projects in his Surface Processes course. For this assignment, Greg allows his students to work either alone or in teams of two, with partners assigned on the basis of similar interests and motivation levels (but not necessarily similar skills or experiences). Sometimes multiple teams work on similar projects, depending on student interests. Topics are chosen from a list Greg provides, although students may also work on topics of their own choosing, subject to Greg's approval. There are multiple "check-points" during the semester, where teams turn in intermediate assignments or meet with the professor for feedback. Early in the term, students turn in research "proposals," where they detail the question they will study and the data they plan to collect. Later they turn in a reference list of ~5 relevant journal articles. One month before the end-of-term poster session, an entire lab period is devoted to meetings, where students can check their progress, get help with any stumbling blocks, and plan how they will use their remaining research time.

Download Greg's assignment handout, (Microsoft Word 32kB Oct6 05) including a brief list of possible topics.

All of this work culminates in an end-of-term poster session. This takes place in a different room, with refreshments. The class is divided in half: half of the students present their posters while the other half walk around and ask questions; then they trade roles. Students are asked to have a 2-5 minute "spiel" prepared to give for Greg, but otherwise the session has an informal atmosphere. Here are some example posters, with Greg's brief descriptions of the associated projects.

Challenges of in-class research projects

There are several challenges to designing effective semester-long research projects. The first is choosing topics that will result in meaningful experiences for the students, even with such limited time for data collection and analysis. The assignment of partners is another potential issue; since students work together extensively, in the field and lab, they must be comfortable spending a lot of time together. Greg has usually been successful assigning students to work with each other if they are interested in similar topics and have similar motivation levels, regardless of their skill or experience. (Occasionally, he has intervened when partners were having trouble or even, in extreme cases, "un-assigned" partners during the course of the project.) Finally, of course, having multiple intermediate deadlines helps students to stay on track, making progress on their projects throughout the semester.

Occasionally, even with carefully chosen topics, the research question turns out to be harder to answer than anticipated. Greg remains philosophical about this: "The students typically see that research is not necessarily a straight-line, it-always-works endeavor and [they also] develop ideas about how the project might be approached to get to the answer, both worthwhile outcomes."

Integrating teaching and research

In his first few years as a professor Greg's teaching and research were quite separate; now they feed off of each other. Of course, devoting class time to research projects allows Greg to do both at once. In addition, however, he finds that his teaching often leads to new research projects, and that the results of these research projects sometimes lead to teaching new topics in his classes. This positive feedback loop keeps both Greg's teaching and his research fresh, as well as maximizing the use of his time.

Building on the class projects

Through these class research assignments, which he uses every year, Greg is able to explore several possible research topics that interest him. In fact, his students do literature searches and some of the initial field work and data collection that he would otherwise have to do himself. That jump starts the research projects he then pursues with students doing their senior theses.

Even with senior thesis projects, Greg has identified several ways to be efficient with his time. When he started teaching, each of his senior advisees did individual, unrelated research projects. These days, however, Greg has all of his students work on related projects. That way, they experience doing collaborative research, exchanging ideas with each other instead of just with him. As an added benefit, when students have questions about their research but Greg is not immediately available, they may be able to help each other.

Weekly meetings and a syllabus

Because all of Greg's students are working on related projects, he meets with all of them at one time. These meetings take place once a week, for an hour. This year, to make these meetings more structured (and because the students receive course credit for their research projects), Greg created a syllabus (Microsoft Word 38kB Oct19 05) for those weekly meetings. What takes place during the meetings varies from week to week; sometimes they discuss a journal article, sometimes the students show each other their data and discuss it. Greg finds that having their peers hear about their progress provides a greater incentive for them to have something to report, and keeps them on track throughout the semester.

Challenges of undergraduate student research projects

Although Greg finds working with his undergraduate students on research projects rewarding, there are two key challenges that he says come with the territory: getting students to take ownership of their projects, and getting them to manage their time wisely throughout the projects. Greg thinks that the first challenge arises because students see their research projects as "just another assignment," rather than as an open-ended inquiry. He tackles this head-on, using his weekly research group meetings to push his students to think ahead and take responsibility for what comes next, and also to ask questions about how the students' data fits with what others have done before. Greg's belief is that by modeling the process of scientific inquiry, and giving his students the opportunity to experience it firsthand, they will eventually internalize the process. Similarly, he believes that students learn to manage their time only by practicing time-management. Thus the syllabus for his research group is one device he employs to help students make continuous progress on their long-term projects, even in the face of their very busy lives -- it gives them intermediate deadlines to meet, breaking up the overall projects into manageable pieces.

Advice for new faculty

Greg has some very cogent advice for new faculty advising undergraduate researchers. First, he says, remember that you're working with undergraduates. A new faculty member's most recent (and sometimes only) experience of research is in the graduate school environment. But undergraduates have no experience doing independent research, and may not really understand the process. For Greg, this means that his undergraduate research projects are as much about teaching the process of doing research as they are about teaching the science. This means that it is important to create projects that go through the entire research process: developing a question, gathering data, and analyzing and interpreting it. If students don't do all of those steps, they don't get the whole experience.

In addition, to make the research experience accessible to all of his students, Greg has focused on local projects. That has meant thinking very creatively about how his work can transfer to the region where he now teaches. It has also resulted in some very interesting projects he wouldn't otherwise have done. And it has meant reserving some of his research projects for himself: projects that involve international travel, or questions too complex for undergraduates to take on in a year.

Choosing research directions and topics

When Greg first came to the College of William and Mary, he noticed that the environmental science program was growing, and that students were very interested in environmental issues. So he found a way to dovetail a part of his research program into that growing interest. His Ph.D. research involved studying the evolution of rivers over millions of years; now, he also studies how rivers evolve over years as the result of human activity.

To identify particular research project topics, Greg talks to colleagues in the area around William and Mary, reads the literature, and just spends some time brainstorming. Folks who've been in the area longer than he has often have ideas about research questions waiting to be answered. Similarly, new research tools can be brought to bear on old questions described in articles from a few decades ago. And, since Greg is a geomorphologist, sometimes inspiration comes while driving around, looking at the landscape.

As Greg looks to the future, he sees his research on local environmental questions growing. At the same time, he is on leave this year, and looking back on his research from the past few years has rekindled his interest in some of his international projects. Wherever his research takes him, it's clear that Greg will continue asking questions and finding ways to answer them.


References

  1. AAAS (1990). The Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action, pp. 121. Washington, DC.
  2. College of William and Mary (2005) "About William and Mary," online at http://www.wm.edu/about/index.php. Accessed October 7, 2005.
  3. Committee on Undergraduate Science Education (1997). Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.