UM program reshapes undergraduate research

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower Image credit: Sean Carter

Curiosity and passion to understand the use of literary expressions as nonviolent resistance brought together Professor Samer Ali of the University of Michigan and student Elizabeth Tower.

After Tower, an international studies student, took Ali’s course on peace and non-violence in Islamic cultures, she wanted to delve into Arabic art forms, such as music, poetry, cinema and more. Their similar research interests bonded them and a mentor-mentee journey began.

Ali then suggested that Tower join the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, so they have up to two years to develop a research project and the resources to build it. She went all out and next week will share their experience of working together at UROP’s annual research symposium on April 20.

“Mentoring is usually individual and one of the best kinds of teaching,” said Ali, an associate professor of Middle Eastern studies. “It’s very hands-on, and we address the issues, talk about the trade-offs that come with every solution. I learned to teach using John Dewey’s philosophy of “learning by doing” and then engaging the mind, body and heart of the whole human being.

Ali and Tower have worked together for two years. Their research is part of a broader framework: non-violence in Arab-Islamic cultures.

“It is the ability of human and literary expressions to transform social reality in non-violent ways,” Ali said. “It’s non-violence and the idea of ​​creative resistance to injustice.”

Tower’s work intends to demonstrate that Palestinian hip-hop is a multimedia cultural movement that mixes multiple art forms at all possible stages: inspiration, production and integration into society.

“As a genre characterized by intermediality and multifunctionality, Palestinian hip-hop transcends cultural, social and political boundaries to provide everyone with an entry point for resistance,” Tower said. “This research helps us understand how creative work – when associated with resistance and characterized by intermediality – straddles the boundaries between art, politics, media and education to create a widely accessible form of creative resistance.”

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower Image credit: Sean Carter

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower Image credit: Sean Carter

For Tower, the most valuable part of being a UROP student is the mentoring relationship.

“Professor Ali not only guided me in my research, but spent endless time helping me as a writer,” Tower said. “He also looked for opportunities for me to present my research and network with other researchers. He has just enriched this experience for me as a student and as a scholar.

In its 34th edition, the UROP symposium, which has around 58,000 graduates, celebrates the partnerships created between students and research mentors.

It is a flagship project for more than 1,000 undergraduate students – from arts and humanities, engineering and environmental sciences to physical sciences, public health and social sciences – leading research on campus. They will present this year in a hybrid format, returning to in-person research presentations at the Michigan League.

“Seeing all the research posters, listening to the students present their work, and all the energy and excitement in one space will be exciting,” said program director Michelle Ferrez. “Many of our undergraduate researchers have been looking forward to this opportunity. It is always a rewarding moment for UROP staff and research mentors to see how much a student has developed and grown over the past year.

For Ferrez, research and scholarship are how the academic community communicates with the world and, therefore, research contributions go far beyond the academy.

“Engaging undergraduate students in research helps them mature as thinkers and doers,” she said. “Research is about finding an interesting question or scenario and not knowing the answer. Also, it provides students with an invaluable networking experience. It is these relationships and skills that they can apply in the future. »

Investigating Mathematics Learning and Teaching

Mentor Vilma Mesa and her students.  Image credit: Sean Carter

Mentor Vilma Mesa and her students. Image credit: Sean Carter

Vilma Mesa, a professor of education and math at UM, has mentored 20 UROP students since 2004. This year, she is working with four students to investigate math education in community colleges.

The duo Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao have spent the last year analyzing qualitative data and calculations to determine how students and teachers are using open-access textbooks in college. Another element of research is to understand how they can develop textbooks that will improve teaching and learning.

“My researchers at UROP are helping us understand the connections between students’ use of specific textbook features and how teachers work with those textbooks,” Mesa said. “We have a large project that allows us to map and track the display of textbooks, and we have identified the ways in which teachers and students view particular features.”

Vilma Mesa, Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao.  Image Courtesy: Vilma Mesa

Vilma Mesa, Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao. Image Courtesy: Vilma Mesa

During next week’s symposium, Burley-Sanford and Hao will talk about their experience working on this project and discuss some of their findings.

“We found interesting differences between our teachers in using one of the textbook features and also differences in the versatility that their students describe as using the same feature,” Hao said. “Some instructors use the feature only for planning or only while teaching; using the feature while teaching seems to encourage more students to use the feature to learn more about the material.

With this information, the team believes they can demonstrate that the feature fulfills the purposes for which it was created.

“Professors who use the feature for planning and teaching don’t see the need to use it for student assessment,” Mesa said. “Adding this component to the feature would be an unnecessary use of resources.”

Burley-Sanford said that once she started the project, she felt overwhelmed and unprepared.

“That’s where a great mentor can come in,” she said. “Professor Mesa was an inspiration and helped shape my university experience. I learned valuable skills that will be useful to me both in academia and in life, such as thinking critically about something and analyzing information.

“The best part of having a mentor became clear when she encouraged me not to give up.”