Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 1, 2014

Focusing on real-world research

Jim Gawel: Mentoring undergraduates in research

“I feel like it’s a major part of what I’m supposed to be doing—involving students in my research not just to get research done but so they actually learn how to do science and how to work with people outside of the classroom.”

Jim Gawel
Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Tacoma

If current projections hold, recent graduates may change jobs ten times or more in their lives, and may work in careers that don’t yet exist.1,2Experience in academic research will help students meet these challenges, because the ability to reinvent oneself is essentially a research skill. Faculty throughout the UW’s three campuses are working to involve not just graduate students, but also undergraduates in academic research projects that can help them build critical skills, such as the ability to gather, analyze, and synthesize complex information on a new topic; to determine needs for new knowledge; and then to help create that knowledge. Working on real-world problems with faculty mentors also helps students build the confidence that they, too, can make an impact. UW faculty such as Jim Gawel treat their undergraduate students as emerging professionals, supporting them as they experience what it means to contribute to a scholarly field and to the community.

Jim Gawel engages his students in research at UW Tacoma by explicitly linking academic work to the world outside the classroom. In addition to providing opportunities for study abroad and service learning, Gawel also creates assignments in his environmental science classes that result in real-world products with clear benefits for residents of Washington state. Here are some of his suggestions for class assignments:

Structure assignments to produce real-world results: Gawel sets up projects for end users who need the data students can provide, such as a report on possible green projects for UW Tacoma’s Facilities Services team, or a study for the local parks department. “Amazingly, even though students care about their grade, they couldn’t care less what I think about their project,” he says. “I find that if they know that it’s going to somebody outside the university, or even someone in another department of the university, they end up paying a lot more attention to what they’re doing, and in the process, they actually learn the material better.”

Show undergraduate researchers that they can make an impact: Students not only contribute to Gawel’s projects, which often result in journal publications, but they also conduct their own studies with real-world impact. For example, his undergraduates have conducted studies of water quality in western Washington lakes. Because the state has cut lake-monitoring programs due to budget concerns, this undergraduate research fills an important need. “In some cases we’ve done studies that we deliver to the parks, but often citizen groups use our data to try to get action from the state or parks,” says Gawel. “We try to deliver to people that matter, but a lot of times it’s folks we didn’t even think about who end up getting a hold of our reports via Google and contacting me later.”


Resources: Past projects by Gawel’s students are described in the 2012 UW Tacoma report “Innovations in Teaching and Learning.” Local media have covered the public health implications of heavy-metal contamination in Washington lakes, as reported in studies co-authored by Gawel and his students.

1Bridgstock, Ruth. “The Graduate Attributes We’ve Overlooked: Enhancing Graduate Employability Through Career Management Skills.” Higher Education Research & Development 28, no. 1 (March 2009): 31–44. doi:10.1080/07294360802444347.

2Stacey, Robert. “From the Dean: Changing Enrollments Reflect the Times.” Perspectives Newsletter: College of Arts and Sciences, University of Washington, May 2013.

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to prepare students for life after graduation.