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Knowledge Crews

New Team Research Communities program puts undergrads on frontlines of scholarship

Knowledge Crews

A team of sophomores and juniors examines ancient artifacts for insight into how the exercise of power has changed since antiquity. Another team analyzes data from rock samples they collected in Yosemite last summer. Yet another group works with historical documents to chronicle the formation communities in a number of Los Angeles locales.

The students may differ in interests and discipline, but they are all part of USC College’s new Team Research Communities (TRC) program. Launched in fall, TRC is one of three new College efforts to recast undergraduates as the producers, not just the consumers, of knowledge.
“The idea is that students in these classes have a chance to work with faculty at the cutting edge of their disciplines,” said Hilary Schor, dean of undergraduate programs and professor of English in the College. “So the students are not only learning from the best, but trying out these ideas themselves, acquiring new skills and carrying out their own independent research.”

Schor leads the program first envisioned by USC College Dean Peter Starr and Michael Quick, the College’s dean of research, to engage more undergraduates in research and build a larger student-scholar community.

“In academia, we’ve labored far too long under the assumption that undergraduates absorb knowledge, that professors produce knowledge,” Starr said. “For the past few years, many of us have been working hard to break this assumption down, on the grounds that, whatever your age, you only truly master a field when you actively engage with it.”

The five TRC courses piloted this year are multidisciplinary and integrate a number of pedagogical tools thought to enrich the undergraduate experience — original research, peer-to-peer learning, faculty mentoring and learner-centered education.

“One aspect of learner-centered teaching is how much more students learn when they are not only students, but also teachers themselves,” said Lawford Anderson, professor of earth sciences who, with Professor Scott Paterson, teaches TRC’s “Geologic Wonders of Joshua Tree and Yosemite.”

Student Nicole Ball was part of the 11-person team that spent two weeks in Yosemite this summer preparing for the course.

“I hiked into Yosemite with very little prior knowledge in geology,” said Ball, a sociology major and art history minor. “And I hiked out with an amazing wealth of information.” She credits this to the environment created in the course, one that “encourages students to work with their peers to research, discuss and create a final product.”

In Yosemite students made measurements and gathered samples. Back in the lab, they are collecting and analyzing data from the rock samples. The final product will be an accurate geologic map about an area that previously had received scant scientific attention.

In Lynn Swartz Dodd’s course “Command and Control: The Archaeology of Power,” students will not only author an Internet publication for a museum Web site about their investigations of ancient artifacts, but will also mentor students in the general education course, “The Ancient Near East: Culture, Archaeology, Texts” who will be examining the same objects.

“We are not just saying ‘O.K., here’s a fish,’ but ‘here’s how you fish,’ ” said Swartz Dodd, a visiting assistant professor of religion who, over the years, has guided the work of dozens of undergraduate researchers in the College’s archaeology lab. “By responding to and critiquing each other in the research process, we’re moving them along in the whole undergraduate research and mentoring path.”

“This course is unique in that the research you conduct directly helps your fellow classmates,” said Kristin Butler, an archaeology and religion major in Swartz Dodd’s class. “As a team, everyone relies on you to make thoughtful contributions.”

Additional TRC courses are historian Bill Deverell’s “Searching for Community in Los Angeles,” political scientist Jeffrey Seller’s L.A.-focused “Inequality and Governance in U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” and archaeologist Anne Porter’s “Community and Tradition, Past and Present.”

In Porter’s course, students look at the role of ritual in society, studying everything from gang-related deaths to existential questions about mortality. Though varied in their research interests, the students “will work together to tease out common factors relating to ritual practices surrounding death across various societal and cultural bounds,” said Porter, assistant professor of religion, art history and classics.

This format gives students the chance to “step up and take initiative,” said student Danielle Gard, a classics major in Porter’s course. Her classmate, Eduardo Castellon, agreed: “It gives us autonomy, but within arms-length of a supportive group.”