Allegheny receives top award for undergraduate research

Allegheny College has been selected by the Council of Undergraduate Research to receive the Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishment. The award is offered to the top three schools in different classification categories. Allegheny received the AURA award in recognition for being the leading institution affiliated with CUR in the category of baccalaureate schools.

According to Lee Coates, professor of biology, Allegheny was chosen for this award for its specially-designed curriculum, which passes students through various stages of freshmen seminars. This curricular structure, known as “scaffolding,” helps prepare students for the extensive undergraduate research opportunities they have at Allegheny.

Twenty years from now, when other institutions are still competing for this award, we’re still going to be the first to have received it.

— Lee Coates

When CUR first announced the competition for the award in the fall of 2014, Coates, along with Aimee Knupsky, associate professor of psychology, and Diana Brautigam, director of institutional and faculty support, decided to draft a submission.

The application involved outlining an “exemplary program” which the applicant school wished to highlight. Upon consulting various groups, including then provost Linda DeMeritt, the group decided to focus on Allegheny’s seminar pipeline.

“We were attending various CUR events, and we started to hear that word [scaffolding], and we realized: this is what we do,” said Coates. “Allegheny is somewhat unique in that it requires all students to complete a senior project—and we have a curriculum that supports that requirement.”

In addition to a focus on scaffolding, the application outlined all of the administrative support invested in undergraduate research opportunities at Allegheny. Among these examples included a reworking of the language governing rules of tenure and promotion at Allegheny.

Faculty, according to Coates, are evaluated based on their teaching abilities, as well as on what scholarship they are involved in, which traditionally only included publications.

“We broadened the definition of ‘scholarship,’ so that it included student-faculty research as well,” said Coates. “If a student has performed research that they can take to a national event or conference—that counts as scholarship too.”

Perks of the award include a free one-year institutional membership in CUR for Allegheny. According to Knupsky, this means that faculty at Allegheny can join CUR as counselors for free. Many faculty at Allegheny are already members, and some, including Knupsky, have been published in CUR’s official journal, the CUR Quarterly.

Knupsky stressed that the significance behind the AURA award should not be associated with simply the school alone.

“It’s an award that reflects not just the work of one or two administrators, but the work of everyone at the institution,” said Knupsky. “Everybody at Allegheny—students and faculty alike—contributed to this award.”

The application for the AURA award was submitted on June 10, 2015. Four months later, on Oct. 1, President James Mullen, along with Coates, Knupsky and Provost Ron Cole received an email informing them that Allegheny had been selected to receive the award.

A ceremony will be held for the AURA award in District of Colombia on Jan. 22, 2016. Other institutions that won the award this year in separate categories include the College of New Jersey and George Mason University in Virginia.

This year will be the first in which CUR has given this award, Coates said.

“Twenty years from now, when other institutions are still competing for this award, we’re still going to be the first to have received it,” he said.

According to Coates, CUR is the national leader for promoting undergraduate research opportunities for all students from the hundreds of institutions that make up its membership.

Knupsky said that Allegheny was considered carefully for the award due to its extensive involvement with CUR.

“For the past few years, Allegheny has been involved in CUR’s biannual conferences, which cover innovation, diversity and internationalization, all related to undergraduate research,” said Knupsky.

The timing of the reception of the award coincided with the development and expansion of the office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities. In the fall of 2013, Coates and Knupsky both attended a CUR workshop for undergraduate research in the natural sciences, from which they brought back innovative ideas for use at Allegheny.

“Prior to then, [Coates’] title was simply ‘director of undergraduate research,’” said Knupsky. “At this conference, we decided to adopt URSCA nomenclature. We also introduced the idea of including student-faculty research as a part of faculty review [for tenure and promotion].”

After consulting with DeMeritt, it was decided that the URSCA office would take direct control of its funds from the provost’s office, and a physical office was opened for the director of URSCA in the Allegheny Gateway.

“[DeMeritt] was instrumental in supporting undergraduate research at Allegheny,” said Knupsky. “We had institutional commitment for URSCA, and that’s part of the reason why we won this award.”

According to Knupsky, URSCA also includes an advisory committee, which includes faculty from every division, and this year, as a result from an increase in funding, includes two student positions: Kathryn Denning, ’16, a student coordinator, and Shane Ostrum, ’19, a student assistant.

Denning’s responsibilities involve facilitating student-faculty events, and raising awareness of the opportunities that exist within the Allegheny community for undergraduate research. This  includes planning Gator Day events, poster sessions and setting up meetings with Allegheny Student Government.

“We want students to realize how involved they can be,” said Denning. “Most people think of research as this abstract thing. We want to show how accessible research opportunities are here at Allegheny.”

Knupsky pointed out that the term “research” does not necessarily apply strictly to the hard sciences or strictly classroom-based, curricular research.

“We don’t forget the last part of the URSCA acronym,” said Knupsky. “It’s not just lab-based research that goes on at Allegheny.”