Earlier this semester, USC College announced a program offering stipends for undergraduate research, called Sophomore Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR). USC College News recently sat down with Vice Dean Steven Lamy, who directs the College’s undergraduate programs, to find out more about this initiative.
What is SOAR?
We’re trying to provide an opportunity for our students to work with some of our best research faculty. We are a research university, one of the best in the country, and there are professors in every department here doing really interesting research.
So how do you connect undergraduates with those professors? Some kids are shy about approaching professors. Others don’t have the time unless they give up a job. We wanted to provide an incentive — sort of a “kick,” if you will — for them to go meet a professor and to think about doing research.
SOAR provides a small amount of money, a stipend of $1,000, the student can use to join a research team with a professor. Or if they have a research idea they want to explore and they know a professor’s doing research in a similar area, they would say, “Could I do this under your supervision? I know it’s not what you’re doing right now, but would you be willing to work on my paper and suggest some readings?”
It does a number of things, we think. One is to encourage students to do research. Two is to encourage students to work with faculty in research. And three, it creates a community of scholars at the faculty and the student level.
We figure that freshman year, students are real busy trying to figure things out — who they are and what L.A. is, can they stay with their roommates, where’s the best place to do this and that, and so on and so forth.
Sophomore might be too early in some sense, but we figure in their sophomore year students are beginning to see what their field is about, they’re beginning to see what their passions are, they’re beginning to develop passions for research and learning, and they might be able to then begin the process.
We see sophomore year as the entry level. We’re not expecting these young men and women to do publishable-quality pieces. We want them to start the research process and get the bug, if you will. We hope they get turned on to research and continue — say to the professor, “Look, I know I don’t have a stipend, but is there any way that I can stay on your project?” or “I know I don’t have a stipend, but I want to continue this paper and I’m going to enter it into a contest,” or “I’m going to use this as a paper for my honors seminar.”
We’d like every person who goes through SOAR to become one of our honors students doing independent research. We’d also like them to apply for the new Discovery Scholars program, funded through the provost’s office. It’s like the Renaissance Scholars program, but these are scholars who do original research. So we hope that students start research as sophomores, continue at the junior level and by the time they’re seniors, they qualify as Discovery Scholars. That’s what we’re hoping happens.
What are the requirements for SOAR?
We’re looking at students with fewer than 64 credits and a 3.3 GPA or better.
There’s no due date. We didn’t want students to have to say, “Oh, I’ve got to rush and get this done.” If they’re taking a course and all of a sudden the light goes on at the end of the semester and they say, “Gee, I’d like to do more research in that,” they can do it next semester. Sophomores can apply at the end of their spring semester as long as they do the research over the summer.
How can students apply to get SOAR money?
We’re committed to awarding $1,000 and we’re making it very easy. All they have to do is send or bring to my office a one-page description of the project signed by the professor, and a budget. We look at it, we check out their grade point average and make sure they’re still a sophomore, and then we basically send them an award letter that they have to sign and send back to us. The letter basically says that they agree to use this money for this purpose, and that if a project is not taken care of, they have to pay us back. So there is some accountability there.
At the end they have to complete the project and we have to have a one-page assessment of what they did, also signed by the professor. The professor has a substantial role supervising a student’s project.
What can students do with their SOAR money?
Well, I’ll give you some examples. We’ve had a couple dozen or so people apply so far, and we’ve sent out some checks already.
One student is using it for language training. To do the research she’s interested in, she needs to learn Arabic, so we said, “Yes, certainly. This is toward research.”
Another student is going to use it for field travel with a professor, I think it’s either in archaeology or geology. I heard that I’m going to get about four or five applications from students who are going to Ecuador over Christmas break for a development project.
If a student wants to join a lab team, but to do so they have to have certain equipment, they can use the money to pay for that. We’ve had a couple of proposals for that.
We’re trying to link SOAR with some of our other ideas. For instance, there’s a new summer program we’re developing called “Problems Without Passports.”
We tested it in the School of International Relations, when I was director there, and it works. An instructor named Wayne Glass takes a group of students every summer to study the problem of nuclear proliferation. They spend two weeks on campus reading and discussing issues related to nuclear proliferation. Then they go to Washington, D.C., for three weeks. They spend one week interviewing people in the NGO and think tank community, one week interviewing people in Congress, and one week dealing with the executive branch, the military and Pentagon. They try to find as much information as they can, and when they come back they write policy papers, providing prescriptions to deal with nuclear proliferation.
We’re planning a similar program in Mexico looking at the issues around remittance. We also have potential programs in Belize and Costa Rica. I’m trying to develop about 10 or 12 of these, but we’ll try three the first year. And kids can use SOAR money to help them pay for that experience.
So it’s a wide range of things. It’s not a wage. It’s not $10 an hour for 100 hours. It’s a stipend. Like graduate students, they get a stipend and if it takes more time, it takes more time. They don’t have to fill out a time sheet.
Is there anything else that’s important to say about SOAR that we haven’t discussed?
Apply! We want to spend a lot of money.