Mission and History

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Mission

The Office for Undergraduate Research was established in 1999 to expand the opportunities for undergraduates to engage in research and mentored scholarship at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. Patricia Pukkila (Professor of Biology Emerita) served as the Director and Associate Dean from 1999-2013. She was convinced that information alone has a short half-life, but students who have experienced inquiry and discovery are well prepared to address future unsolved problems and to assume important roles as enlightened citizens and leaders. A primary purpose of our public university is to generate, evaluate and communicate ideas within a diverse intellectual community comprised of faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Accordingly, we at OUR have accepted the challenge to identify and eliminate financial, social, and/or cultural barriers so that all students can become full participants in our intellectual community. We have focused on expanding research-exposure courses across the curriculum so that students are supported in their initial experiences with creative work. We have a variety of resources, including financial support, to help research become a distinctive feature of the undergraduate experience at our public Research-Extensive university.

History

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is dedicated to the task of making research, mentored scholarship, and creative performance distinctive features undergraduate education at the University. The provision of “high quality undergraduate instruction to students within a community engaged in original inquiry and creative expression” (emphasis added) has been an explicit part of the University’s mission statement since 1994. Our intellectual community is defined by the fact that faculty members are involved in a wide range of undergraduate programs, are committed to training Master’s and PhD students, and also are engaged in their own research and scholarly activity. If any of these fundamental tasks were to be abandoned, we would no longer be a Research-Extensive university. Ideally, universities such as ours are “communities of learners” where “the shared goals of investigation and discovery should bind together the disparate elements to create a sense of wholeness” (Boyer Commission Report on Educating Undergraduates, p. 9).

In reality, the emphasis on research at our university has at times separated faculty from undergraduates and graduate education from undergraduate education, to the detriment of all. In 1997, the Chancellor’s Task Force on Intellectual Climate released a report that described several ways in which our University was failing to engage enough of its students in a satisfying and powerful intellectual life sufficient to address the pressing needs of society (a crucial role for a public university). The report also outlined several interrelated strategies for effecting change. An important recommendation of the Intellectual Climate report was the creation of an Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) at the University to expand opportunities for active, mentored learning experiences for undergraduates.

The past several years have seen considerable national attention directed to undergraduate education in research universities in general, and to the important role of undergraduate research in particular. At a 2002 national meeting on undergraduate research organized by the Reinvention Center, Carolyn Ash Merkel, Director of Student-Faculty Programs at the California Institute of Technology, spoke of the factors enabling undergraduate learning through inquiry and research to flourish on some campuses but not on others. In her view, a “culture of undergraduate research” is necessary in which administrators, faculty, and students each play important roles in defining and articulating the shared values and benefits of widespread student participation in the university’s research mission. Merkel also pointed out that changing academic culture is a challenging and lengthy process. UNC-Chapel Hill, along with many excellent research universities, has embraced this challenge, and signs of progress are everywhere. Undergraduate research is part of the current Academic Plan and an important component of the new General Education curriculum. Undergraduate research is also a point of emphasis in the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan, “Making Critical Connections”. We at the OUR are energized by the current possibilities to make undergraduate research a seamless part of the culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and we welcome your continuing input (our@unc.edu).