College (Un) Bound, a new book by Jeff Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education, takes a penetrating look at the state of higher education and what the future holds for America’s colleges and universities. Much of the focus is on what’s wrong with the current system (e.g. low graduation rates, high student debt, etc.) and how the landscape is rapidly changing (e.g. massive online open courses, hybrid classes, etc.). There are, however, examples of what is working in higher education, and among the institutions cited is Wooster and its commitment to undergraduate research, particularly its nationally acclaimed Independent Study (I.S.) program.
Selingo introduces the reader to I.S. by citing a project undertaken last year by Heidi Klise and her adviser, Hayden Schilling, professor of history at Wooster. Selingo talks about Klise’s historical narrative of the 15th Army Air Corps, which included her grandfather, who was shot down over Eastern Europe during a mission and became a prisoner of war for nine months. In addition to extensive interviews with her grandfather, Klise had an opportunity to conduct research at an Air Force museum in Georgia.
Selingo makes the point that Klise was doing graduate-level work as an undergraduate at Wooster. “Her paper (was) part of an undergraduate research project that every student at Wooster must complete before graduation,” writes Selingo. “The research is carried out over the course of the senior year. Students meet one-on-one every week for an hour with their faculty adviser, who helps to focus the research, ask questions, and provide feedback on drafts. Near the end of the spring semester, students defend their thesis in front of a committee.”
Schilling, who has been teaching at Wooster for nearly 50 years, describes how the research experience has come to define the undergraduate years for so many students at Wooster. "This is a rite of passage,” he says. "It's intense. They learn a lot about themselves, about what they can do and what they can't do. And I think many of them are surprised by what they learn…It is a piece of evidence that students can take to employers or graduate schools to show that they can write, reason, and be successful.”
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