Much like our students, Meredith faculty are involved on campus in a variety of ways. Paul Winterhoff, for example, wears a number of different hats. He’s a professor of human environmental sciences. He’s also the director of general education. And he’s the director of undergraduate research.
As director of undergraduate research, he oversees one of the most exciting days on Meredith’s campus – Celebrating Student Achievement (CSA Day). Having just wrapped up the second CSA Day under his leadership, we sat down for a Q&A with Dr. Winterhoff to get his take on what makes the day so special.
What makes CSA Day such a distinctive part of the Meredith Experience?
It’s the culmination of a lot of work. You get to see the significant experiences the students are having – it’s a real showcase for what students have learned.
Many, including President Allen, say it’s their favorite day on campus. Why do you think that is?
There’s incredible energy around – people are nervous, excited, rushing around getting some last minute stuff together. The combination of faculty and staff working together to make CSA Day happen is a really healthy, positive thing for the College. We see that all of our roles are important, from the folks getting tables to the right places to the faculty efforts – and the students are all intermingled in that.
How does the undergraduate research experience at Meredith differ from that of other colleges and universities?
One big difference is the closer interaction with faculty members. Students are all supervised by a Meredith faculty member. What that does is gives the students confidence. They can deal with this person who has a Ph.D. – they can ask questions and collaborate with a professional. There’s also a lot of independence. We mentor them carefully, but it’s their work and we expect a lot out of them, which develops their strengths and their discipline.
How does presenting at CSA Day make students stronger?
The research process is a combination of creative thinking with critical thinking, even for the hard sciences. Critical thinking is integral to the whole process – reviewing abstracts, the writing process, accepting and reacting to feedback.
And the opportunity to present in front of an audience that’s not necessarily under your control – it’s not your class audience, it’s a group of people who might be a little critical – is a great experience. Students learn how to answer challenging questions and understand that saying “I don’t really know the answer to that” is okay.
How has CSA Day changed over the years?
Participation has increased. In 2003, 78 students participated in presentations and poster abstracts. This year, there were approximately 125 student presenters. And the quality of student presentations has increased dramatically as we’ve insisted on higher standards as we’ve gone along. Our student researchers go to a lot of great places and present their research at the same level as graduate students and faculty members.
There’s also a lot of peer support. This year, throughout the day, there were more than 2,200 attendees at different research sessions and more than half of those were students watching their peers.
Would you like to see more students involved in CSA Day?
We want participation in undergraduate research to be widespread. We want more students to participate – and we want to encourage the younger students. That’s why we included the Pecha-Kucha* presentations for the first time this year, so first-time presenters could have the opportunity to share their authentic, individual experiences.
*Pecha-Kucha is a presentation style from Japan that emphasizes speed and graphics
What’s the best way for students to get involved?
One common thread in getting students involved in undergraduate research is the student taking some initiative. Another is departmental faculty keeping research opportunities in the forefront and talking about them in class.
What do you like most about your role as director of undergraduate research?
The interactions with the students. My experience with them is that they’re really hard workers and very responsible, but they also get the support to know that they can do it from older peers and faculty. My own work in research really prepared me for my role. I know how hard it is. I know what’s involved in doing a good job.
I also like the interaction with my peers in working together to make the whole program work.