Pi2: Getting a Jump-Start on Research

Dec 21, 2018

Texas Tech continues to encourage undergraduate research and the recently added Program in Inquiry and Investigative Thinking offers incoming freshman the opportunity to learn the background and fundamentals of doing research.

Two years ago, Honors College Dean Michael San Francisco was asked to develop a plan to support a program for about 100 freshmen. Last year was the first for the program, known as Pi2. It is funded for four years with $2.5 million from the president’s office and the National Research University Fund.

“The goal is to allow them to understand the norms that actually bind all scholarship across the board,” he explains. “Whether you are in the humanities, in the arts, physical sciences, or chemical engineering, or cancer research, there are some things that we all need to be aware of. It gives them an appreciation of what’s involved and the rigger that goes behind a lot of what is generated.”

The freshmen enroll in the program for two semesters, with the opportunity to go on and get paid hourly do research for part or all of their undergraduate time.

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“When we go on the road and talk about it, you embellish your academic experience in ways that you may not even realize. So, somebody may decide that they wish to pursue this and then two years down the line they say I’m not in research. However, the ability to think analytically, to critically evaluate information, all of those things they carry with them no matter where they go, that’s always useful.”

Interested students accepted to Tech apply to be part of the Pi2 program the spring prior to beginning classes. A committee selects the students, and based on their intended majors and essays, they are divided equally into five cohorts.

Those are 1) Life Sciences in the 21st Century; 2) Health and Environmental Sciences-How to address human health concerns in an interconnected age; 3) Mathematical and Physical Sciences; 4) Energy and Process Science-Meeting Humanity’s Challenges in the 21st Century; and 5) Archaeology, Art, Material Culture, Science Studies and Design.

Chris Witmore, an archaeology professor, mentors the fifth cohort. Each week, he presents his students with a different object, like a map, a pocket watch, barbed wire and a light bulb.

“We have a common problem and we kind of struggle together to achieve it,” Witmore says. “We become a team working towards understanding a particular project each week. In the spring they will undertake research with me, so their first experience in doing collaborative research is actually on one of my projects. They are basically becoming researchers in the context of this class and we’re working on problems I’m working on within my current research.”

Program topics covered through readings, seminars, practicums, discussions and debate include the philosophy of research, responsible conduct of research, research ethics, compliance, safety, and the use of animals and human subjects in research.

San Francisco says one of the program’s outcomes is students possibly remaining at Tech for post-graduate degrees.

“I think there are multiple outcomes that are most positive—that is one for sure,” he says. “As the semester goes on, faculty from different disciplines are invited to come and give presentations in this classroom of each of the cohorts and then as they speak, the students may say ‘oh I’d like to work with so-and-so,’ and then we set up the meeting. If a match is made they can start doing research in there.”

San Francisco says the program adds much to undergraduate research at Tech.

“We need to have this sort of thing to institutionalize the culture of research at the university. For many years we had various funding, lots of it to do undergraduate research, but it was never formally institutionalized in a way that we are now doing. I think using university funding that are dedicated for this purpose is the goal,” San Francisco says. “Doing research is the goal of academic experience in the classroom. It’s the icing on the cake.”