The “A-Ha” Moment

The turning point in the journey of discovery

shutterstock_152025671This is the second edition of Cascade magazine devoted entirely to the subject of undergraduate research and scholarship. Our first edition, published in winter 2013, was such a popular success that we have decided to make this an annual celebration of the original, inspiring work pursued by undergraduates in the College of Arts and Sciences.

This magazine is a window into a pervasive effort on campus to involve more students—and involve them more visibly—in research endeavors. This can range from oceangoing marine biology expeditions to diving deep into the stacks in the library and online resources to ask—and explore—a personally meaningful intellectual question (many examples throughout the magazine).

Along with Cascade, another highly visible vehicle for showcasing student work is the UO’s annual Undergraduate Symposium. Now in its fourth year, the most recent symposium last May was a daylong event featuring more than 100 UO undergraduates—in fields ranging from anthropology to architecture to Russian studies—who shared their work publicly, in much the same way that professional scholars do: via posters and presentations.

Lisa FreinkelWe asked Lisa Freinkel (left), vice provost for undergraduate studies, to help us define our terms and tell us more about what’s special about the undergraduate research experience here at the UO.
—Interview by Lisa Raleigh

Q: First of all, what do we mean by research?

LF: Research can evoke images of Bunsen burners, petri dishes and folks in white coats; it’s a word that tends only to mean scientific investigation. But our students investigate and innovate in as many different ways as there are academic and professional disciplines. So when we talk about the Undergraduate Symposium, we avoid the word “research” in its title. Instead we have a tagline that tries to capture the full range of student discovery: “celebrating undergraduate achievements in research, scholarship, creativity and innovation.”

Besides work in science laboratories, our students are embarking on projects in the performing arts, they’re embarking on projects that are getting them dusty in the archives and they’re embarking on entrepreneurial endeavors in the business school. What links all of this together is that very deep “a-ha” moment when a student goes from assimilating information that’s been transmitted to them by their instructors to suddenly shaping something that feels new: that moment where their own personal sets of beliefs, questions and interests start to gel with the information and the methods they’ve been schooled in, allowing something new to emerge.

That “a-ha” moment is really the crowning moment for the educator. Of course it’s wonderful when a student really gets what you’re trying to say—but what’s really spectacular is when they return the serve to you and the volley begins. 

Q: So how does a student get from the “a-ha” moment, where you see that turn take place, to developing a project that results in presenting at the symposium? Talk about what happens from that point forward.

LF: A student begins with a sense of what she wants to say or do—with something she wants to bring to the world. The work of getting from that moment to a presentation is a work of midwifery from the standpoint of the faculty: You’re helping “deliver” a brand-new idea. From the student’s perspective, it’s about mastering the skills needed to take what may be an inchoate idea and give it shape. It’s about even deeper immersion in the discipline and about acquiring the materials—which may be raw materials, data, archival materials—that will allow the project to emerge. Then, between the honing of skills and pulling materials together, a special process of iteration takes place where the student shapes something, shares it with her faculty mentor, gets feedback, then reshapes it. Through that process of iteration, you go from that initial “a-ha” to the research paper or poster or work of art, or whatever the end product may be.

And then that’s not even the end, because then the student’s work is out in the world and it joins the conversation among other scholars, researchers and activists, which leads to more feedback—and the conversation continues. That’s the moment where the university’s impact, and the impact of undergraduate education, is felt within the broader region, state, nation, world. That’s the payoff moment for society. But for the student, the whole process is the payoff.

Q: How about the middle of this process, when you create a hypothesis and then test it?

LF: First of all, let’s dispel the image of the lonely researcher or artist up in their garret creating something—I don’t think that’s really how human creativity flourishes. It’s all about conversation and, just like in a conversation, you may begin by knowing exactly what you want to say, but then somebody responds and your viewpoint suddenly, necessarily, shifts. That process of elaborating an idea yields insights along the way.

And some of those insights may be painful, like, “Oh, I was completely wrong. My initial hypothesis is flawed and this research isn’t yielding clear results.” That’s an “a-ha,” too. “A-ha” is not always a happy, smiley-face moment. It can be the moment where it’s back to the drawing board. But at the same time, it’s all moving forward. And what’s exciting is that it’s forward movement for the individual student, the faculty member, and in the end, for the whole community—because what you’re seeing is the development of human culture, of human potential. This is how we get from the first discovery of fire to the Internet.

Q: Lots of universities create opportunities for undergraduates to have experiences like those you have been describing. What’s different here?
The four facets of human discovery—research, scholarship, creativity and innovation—come together at the University of Oregon in a unique way that’s really a feature of the university’s size, a feature of the strength of the College of Arts and Sciences and a feature of the very specific shape that our professional schools and the collaborations across schools and colleges have achieved.

These collaborations reflect the flavor of this place, this campus. Even though we are a public research university, I think we feel much smaller than we actually are. Our beautiful campus feels unifying and whole; part of the experience of physically being here is that you feel like you’ve joined a true community. You’ve landed in a place that is human-sized and physically integrative.

Another factor: At the UO, our students are passionately engaged in thinking about the world around them. They have that spark to want to make the world a better place, to resolve social injustice and inequity—but they’re also wanting to do data-driven research, which will help them be activists with an edge. They’re merging social consciousness with academic rigor and personal passion, and that’s a winning combination.

Q: Sounds like there’s something unique about UO students, too.
Our students come to the world with a genuine curiosity that’s born from a certain humility, a certain sense of wonder. So they sometimes ask questions that nobody in their right mind would ask. I think our students are humble enough to ask really big questions, which sounds like a paradox, but often when you’re coming from a position of being already invested in your own sense of self-worth, it’s hard to take risks: There’s more to lose.

I do also want to say a word in favor of the quirky. We’re two hours south of Portland, but this isn’t the land of Portlandia, and that’s all to the good. I think we’re quite grounded here and down to earth. But the flavor of the Pacific Northwest that runs through both Eugene and Portland is a willingness to not always look so clean and tidy. To not always have it figured out—just taking your intuition and seeing where it leads. Iteration and discovery: Try something, see what comes back, and take it from there. “A-ha” may not always look like a straight line leading to an obvious destination—but I guarantee that the journey will be well worth it.