At first blush, dance might not seem a productive area for research. Put on a pretty dress, some great shoes and you’re ready, right?
Not really. And the Department of Dance has three young women who can prove it. Their work netted them research grants worth $3,050. Working as a team, Martha Dobbs, a graduate of Farmington High School, and Kate Vincek, a graduate of L’Anse Creuse High School-North researched “solo forms in contemporary choreography: performance and analysis of Jan Van Dyke’s Luna.” Marlo Mysliwiec, a graduate of Berkley High School, researched “dance for the camera.” All three women are mentored by Associate Professor Douglas Risner of the dance department.
The women were among 114 students who presented work at the university’s fifth Undergraduate Research Conference, sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR). Dobbs and Vincek performed and Mysliwiec choreographed a dance performed by her sister. The three women also gave oral presentations.
“A big lesson I have learned from undergraduate research is how to make and keep deadlines,” Vincek says. “When something is a ‘side-project’ and separate from graded courses, it is easy to lose track of it. I’ve also learned all about interviewing, interpreting data, gathering research, how to write proposals, summaries, anything -- you name it. I also feel it was significant in that I worked with a partner, because I had to learn how to communicate my ideas and listen and consider hers.”
A small office with a staff of two, OUR invites students from the hard sciences, social sciences, performing arts and humanities to put theory into practice while working on research projects and being mentored by faculty. Most of the proposals come from the sciences, but Kevin Rashid, director of OUR, is happy to see a recent influx of creative projects.
“We’ve made overtures to underrepresented disciplines and departments,” he explains. “We’ve also done targeted campaigns such as one in 2005 that was a Detroit Research Initiative. It was topic-focused and community-focused, so we created a group of researchers around an issue. We’ve also noticed that creative projects were underrepresented, so last summer we did reach out to some different departments.”
Research is valuable to the students who undertake it for a variety of reasons. Besides learning more about their chosen field, Rashid says, the experiences that the faculty mentor/student relationship enables are critical in the development of students’ skills whether they are artistic or honed in a laboratory.
“The one-to-one ratio of student to mentor is always incredibly powerful for any student,” he says. “For high-performing research-oriented and creative students it allows them to apply knowledge to the real world in ways that rote learning and memorization can’t.”
The research conference is a key part of the program because it provides a venue in which the university can talk to itself, showcasing student accomplishments across disciplines and making some disciplines more aware of each other. Rashid hopes it will lead to more complex and larger, interdisciplinary collaborations.
“One of the most difficult tasks is preparing these students on how to present their work,” he says. “We work with a lot of overachievers who are used to succeeding, but oftentimes in a small theatre of one or two – their professor or their parents, so just accomplishing the work is considered a success. Giving their work a voice and a presentation is a whole different skill. It’s empowering for the student to be able to internalize that knowledge and give it to an audience in a way that show how important or beautiful the work is.”
Dobbs, who performed at the conference, concurs: “I liked that I could really explain the research and show the audience (my work),” she says. “I also liked that all of my hard work was evident to everyone. There is so much more to dance than just what I have been learning, and sometimes you have to delve deeper to find that information. There are a lot of opportunities for undergraduate research, especially for students in the arts. You just have to find them and be creative.
“It's a great experience no matter how challenging a topic you choose,” she continues. “You learn a lot more about your own field than you ever thought you could know, and it can be a lot of fun. You also sort of become an expert in that area, and it helps you build skills you may need later in life.”
Rashid is proud of the students’ work. “They are so advanced that they are actually adding to the wealth of knowledge our institution is bringing to the academic community,” he says. “It’s really fun to work with students who are working outside the classroom and are genuinely enthused about the work they are producing.”