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Research through the years

Posted 2:21 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022

The First Year Research Exposure (FYRE) program is one of several programs on the UWL campus that aims to engage first generation and underrepresented students in research early in their college career. Photo of students in the program in 2016.

From dean’s fellows to eagle apprentices, here are the innovative ways UWL has expanded student research opportunities

UW-La Crosse research has led to the discovery of a novel protein, explored the pressing economic and social issues of local residents, and matched a student’s love of medieval history. 

UWL has a rich culture of undergraduate research that has formed over decades and involves wide interests, diverse students and faculty, and a variety of campus offices. It benefits local residents, national initiatives, and even takes students on international trips to solve global issues. 

How research grew on the UWL campus 

More than 20 years ago, UWL started the Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship program under Mike Nelson, former College of Science and Health dean. Nelson recalled urging former UWL Chancellor Judith Kuipers to invest in a more formal research scholarship program for students, covered in an article in UWL’s College of Science and Health News. 

“I said, if you hook your wagon to the undergraduate research star, I’m going to make you and the university famous,” Nelson told Kuipers. “We’ll be the best in the nation.” 

UWL has made a national reputation for undergraduate research, hosting the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) twice and being ranked among the top 23 colleges nationwide recognized by U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings for stellar undergraduate research and creative projects in 2016. 

UWL created an undergraduate research office in 2011, led by an inaugural undergraduate research and creativity director Scott Cooper. The office supports student research and other scholarly and creative activities in all academic disciplines. With innovative programs and support, research has grown to the point where faculty members are expected to mentor students in some type of research or creative project.  

National Survey of Student Engagement data shows about 30% of all UWL seniors report having participated in undergraduate research with faculty, a significantly higher amount than similar universities. 

How UWL keeps research sustainable 

Where some campuses have had to cut research opportunities out of declining budgets, UWL has been able to grow them by coming up with multiple revenue streams to support research and creative programs, explains Cooper. 

The university’s unique Eagle Apprentice Program was made possible through the collaboration of campus offices including Undergraduate Research & Creativity, Admissions, and Financial Aid. The program recruits and financially supports 25-35 students doing research with a faculty mentor in their first two years on campus. It is funded through Financial Aid, which awards students with a $1,000 research scholarships. Generous support also continues to come from donors to an endowment through the UWL Foundation who see the value of coupling a scholarship with experiential learning through research. 

Professor Victor Macías-González and Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion Barbara Stewart designed the Eagle Mentoring Program in 2008, a retention initiative for under-represented, second-year students. It offers students credit while they prepare for research, and explore and apply to graduate school programs. Macías-González and Stewart obtained a $30,000 UW System grant to run a two-year pilot of the program, partnering with the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota. The College of Arts Social Sciences and Humanities (CASSH) hosted the Eagle Mentoring Program originally. The program has continued with leaders: Former Associate Dean Charles Martin-Stanley from 2016 to 2021 and Director of the Center for Transformative Justic Tara Nelson starting in 2021. The first eight cohorts had a 96% graduation retention rate with 57% going on to graduate and professional programs, and 24% participating in other high impact practices.  

Research is also embedded into UWL classes, providing more students access to these opportunities. Projects often also benefit community partners such as policy makers, businesses and non-profits by structuring projects around their needs.

UWL has a database designed to help community groups and faculty and staff on campus connect with community members for collaborative community-engaged learning and research projects. 

At UWL research is not happening in one place — it is everywhere  

Programs across campus are working to improve access to research opportunities early in students’ college career while improving six-year graduation rates. They reach a variety of groups such as first-generation, low income, and minority students. Among them: 

  • The College of Science and Health (CSH) funds 24 Dean’s Distinguished Summer Fellows (DDF) 
  • UWL has been partner with the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP) since 2008, annually serving 12 underrepresented students in STEM disciplines. 
  • The McNair Scholars program has served 145 students since it began in 2009, with 103 of 130 (79%) graduates enrolling or planning to enroll in graduate school.  
  • The McNair office also coordinates the First Year Research Experience (FYRE) program, which exposes underrepresented students in the STEM fields to research opportunities. Since 2009, 117 students have participated. 
  • The Eagle Mentoring program benefits second-year underrepresented students and is a stepping stone to UWL's TRIO McNair Scholars Program. Since 2009, 118 students have taken a one-credit course helping them develop a research proposal. 


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