Student welfare has always been my concern during my days at the NUS Students’ Union. I have always considered myself a proponent of subsidized education, and have advocated a dedication of the government budget towards tertiary education in an article published by The Ridge six years ago.
NUS has modelled itself after top institutions in the United States such as MIT. For instance, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at NUS was a leaf taken straight out of MIT’s book. UROP gives students the unique opportunity to collaborate with various faculty staff in research projects. Such projects give students good insights into the life of a researcher, and more often than not, testimonials of their participation in such projects put them in good stead for their admissions to top graduate programs.
A number of top institutions in the United States have comprehensive undergraduate research programs in place to encourage undergraduates to participate in research. The summer scholars program is an example of such a program. Participants of the summer research program typically spend their summer vacation doing research under the guidance of an allocated research mentor. A summer vacation is equivalent to the 3-4 month long semester break after semester 2 of NUS’ academic calender. Other perks are available to participants such as a stipend and the opportunity to travel to major conferences within their field of interest.
While NUS has implemented similar undergraduate research programs to its American counterparts, there is some difference in terms of administrative aspects. Research projects are usually officially registered as modules. Students typically start on their research projects at the end of semester 2 during the break. They will continue working on their project through their vacation until the end of the following semester. The more hardworking ones will continue their projects for one more semester until the next long vacation. The research projects are usually graded and will count towards one’s major. Those who have done the project over two semesters will receive twice as many modular credits as those who have done the project over one semester. Students do not usually receive stipends. At least for the moment, there is no scholarship body that awards students stipends.
There is a common perception that students will be encouraged to participate in research projects if they are not graded. Students are hesitant to participate in research projects/UROP because of the innate fear that their GPA/CAP will be affected by a poor grade. These students perceive that if they were unable to obtain good findings for their research project, the final grade they will obtain will be adversely affected.
There is a common perception that students will be encouraged to participate in research projects if they are not graded. Students are hesitant to participate in research projects/UROP because of the innate fear that their GPA/CAP will be affected by a poor grade. These students perceive that if they were unable to obtain good findings for their research project, the final grade they will obtain will be adversely affected. This may not be perceived as economical effort considering the time spent on their research project in doing literature research, experiments, data analysis and finally, compiling the research report. Some end up spending a substantial amount of pocket money as they often have to stay back on campus till the wee hours of the morning to do their research, paying midnight charges on the cab home. I remembered spending over $200 all on midnight cab charges when I did my UROP.
Perhaps, NUS can go one step further and make refinements to its undergraduate research programs. First and foremmost, it will be great if student can be given a choice over the counting of the UROP/research project to his/her major. Should a student obtain a less than desirable grade, he/she should be granted the right to exclude the module from his/her major, even to the extent of excluding it from the CAP/GPA calculation. An administrative step will be giving the student the choice to allocate Pass/Fail or actual grading status to his/her UROP. Secondly, it will also be beneficial to have a scholarship body to award student participants a certain amount of stipend to offset a substantial bit of the expenditure. Lastly, having an undergraduate academic publication in place will also be useful. Students can publish their research report, or in some cases, publish important experimental steps and protocols that might be useful to others. Such shared information will be useful to students doing similar experiments. Students can also identify future research collaborators with similar research interests from such a publication.
Indeed, there is much we can learn from top institutions of higher learning overseas. Such case studies allow us to develop the blue prints for successful programs in our local universities.