The University of Virginia is offering a new way to connect students directly with faculty researchers in authentic inquiry using the latest digital technology. Our new Research Seminars Initiative (RSEM) offers small classes that connect undergraduate students and faculty in creating interactive visualizations that invite deep inquiry into that faculty member’s research interests.
RSEMs use a project-based learning instructional approach to encourage an authentic relationship between the students and a faculty member’s research activities. Students develop meaningful research questions through exploring, structuring, and analyzing primary sources and successfully communicate their findings using modern technological approaches.
This inquiry is done within undergraduate seminars co-taught by faculty members from multiple disciplines. These seminars bring together students, faculty, and outside scholars to develop highly interactive visualizations while advancing a broadly collaborative research agenda across multiple disciplines of study. It combines the best of liberal arts and discipline-specific education with training in visual thinking and the application of new technologies. As importantly, it offers undergraduates an opportunity to present original research for peer review and online publication, adding value and purpose to their work.
The ability to visualize primary sources and information presents a new opportunity for digital scholarship, using data to support inquiry and argument. The seminars utilize tools from UVA’s SHANTI suite of digital tools to weave images, maps, charts, video and data into highly interactive and compelling dynamic visualizations and presentations, and seamless access to other web-based applications such as online maps and Google documents.
Writing about visualization is like “dancing about architecture”, so I encourage you to look at our website (www.viseyes.org) to get a better sense of the value of interactive visualization in the university environment. Each seminar is designed and taught by a content instructor, whose scholarly interests frame the course and help to define the research agenda, and a visualization instructor, who sets the visualization portion of the curriculum and help the students realize the project’s goals in a digital form.
Each small group seminar of 10 to 20 students is designed and taught by a content instructor, whose scholarly interests frame the course and help to define the research agenda, and a visualization instructor, who sets the visualization portion of the curriculum and helps realize the project’s goals in a digital form. In the first third of the course, students are introduced to the core subject matter through readings, lectures, field trips, and videos. Guest lecturers and project participants from outside the university often interact with students via telecommunication technologies such as Skype.
In the second third of the course, students are encouraged to define/refine their research questions and identify/locate primary source materials that can be used to answer them. In the final third of the course, students work closely with the instructors and their peers to organize their data and create visualizations that can reveal new insights and support arguments. At the end of the course, students make final presentations of their work to project partners and invited guests – a dynamic, interactive version of a “poster session” at a conference.
Over the course of the semester, students gain mastery of the course content, an understanding of basic academic research methodologies, and a proficiency with visualization technologies. The seminar’s collaborative research environment encourages faculty mentoring and hands-on learning. For prospective graduate students, it offers a glimpse of new educational models that are transforming our disciplines and the world of academic scholarship.
We see the RSEM as a great example of an emerging educational model known as project-based learning and is rewarding to all involved. Students have an opportunity to work closely with senior faculty members across disciplines to do authentic research using next generation tools to make real contributions to the literature. Faculty members are able to advance their research agendas in innovative ways, and the collaboration with scholarly partners enhances the university’s relationship with the community.
I have seen undergraduate students benefit greatly from this type of classroom structure. Rather than passively ingesting knowledge from lectures, demonstrating recall on tests and papers, and promptly forgetting it, the learning tends to be more genuine and constructive in nature.
Students are actively engaged in inquiry with direct and constant interaction with faculty members and each other. They are encouraged to seek the help of outside scholars, make use of special collections, archives, and other information sources of data beyond “The Google.”
In short, they learn how to do research.
The seminars promote what are commonly referred to as 21st century skills: The pursuit of knowledge through inquiry; the ability to collaborate with their peers and outside experts; the effective use of technology and media; the use of new models of communication and group interaction; and critical thinking skills that are often absent in lecture-style instruction and important to their careers, and to a 21st century world.
About Bill Ferster
Bill Ferster is a research professor at the University of Virginia and a technology consultant for organizations using web-applications for ed-tech, data visualization, and digital media. He is the author of Sage on the Screen (2016, Johns Hopkins), Teaching Machines (2014, Johns Hopkins), and Interactive Visualization (2012, MIT Press), and has founded a number of high-technology startups in past lives. For more information, see www.stagetools.com/bill.