When Stuart Silverman, the Honors College dean at the University of South Florida, began talking to me about "undergraduate research," I thought about the research efforts I launched during my undergrad days.
My study involved the dating practices of students. It was largely anecdotal, entirely experimental, extremely personal and yielded few if any proven facts. Even today, after gathering 25 years of data from one specific coed, I'm unable to make any sustainable conclusions.
A second study examined the theory that three college roommates could subsist on corn flakes, peanut butter, white bread and Steak-Ums for a week. The hypothesis proved true, but the results were not pretty.
Let's face it, back in the day, college administrators classified undergraduate research as a foreign concept, save for some professor conducting research on undergraduates. Today, it's still pretty rare on most college campuses.
At USF, however, it's not so rare. A number of programs exist to provide undergraduates the chance to be a part of real research programs. Even some freshman gain the opportunity to enter labs at Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, the USF medical school and the university psychology department.
"We tell the kids you can read textbooks, or you can play a part in creating the knowledge that goes into the textbooks," Silverman said during the sixth annual undergraduate research symposium on Wednesday.
The program participants come largely from the Honors College, but the opportunity is open to any undergraduate student. The program serves as an important lure for USF as it competes for the best and brightest from around the nation. James Hudson, a junior from Morgantown, W.Va., said the research program was the reason he came to USF.
And I thought it was the beach.
Of course, the research opportunities are not granted randomly and without supervision, so don't look for anyone to repeat my Steak-Um study. However, developing relationships between students and professors is another positive byproduct.
Dr. Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor in the university's government and international affairs department, raves about how the program allows students to become deeply involved in the rigors of research.
"I love it," said Keenan Arodak, who conducted a study on the increased role women play in contemporary politics. "It's labor intensive, I'm not paid and I don't get credit. It's stressful and sometimes you feel like your head is going to explode.
"But in the long term, it's going to have a lot of benefits."
Like the other students, Arodak knows his work will prove pivotal in helping him get into graduate school. The research helps students out-duel Ivy Leaguers for spots at the most prestigious grad schools.
On Wednesday, USF vice provost Dwayne Smith told the students that with most of his days being consumed with impending budget cuts of "historic proportions," the symposium served as refreshing reminder of the university's true mission.
Funny, I kind of felt the same way.
That's all I'm saying.