It all fit together so snugly.
Chelsey Paige was already working in Special Collections in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Library when she was chosen to do the same thing for the URTOPS program.
Launched in fall semester of academic year 2020-21 by the Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavor, or URACE, the program is a combination of hands-on research and job-training with the goal of preparing students for post-graduation life, whether it’s a job, an internship or graduate school.
Paige, a senior in art history with a minor in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, has been a work-study student archiving artifacts from the Pre-Columbian era in Special Collections. URTOPS (Undergraduate Research Training Opportunity Program Scholars) has added to experience in that job.
In staff meetings at the library, she contributes new ideas for working with the collections and is given the freedom to pursue them, she said.
“I am treated more like a staff than a work-study, so I have higher expectations and reputation than a typical work-study, which has really helped my professional development,” she said.
“Right after graduation, I want to work for a few years in museums. The URTOPS program had us do a lot of prep work with our resumes and CVs. I have already been using those documents to apply for jobs.”
URTOPS is just one of two brand-new programs along with another in only its second year that are sponsored by URACE.
URTOPS takes place for an entire academic year, but the Virtual International Research Internship and the Summer Virtual Learning Institute. are summer-only. The international internship program is debuting this summer and the Learning Institute is headed into year two.
“The students are coming from all disciplines. All of them are diverse, underrepresented, underserved students, which is exactly where we want to be with all of our programs,” said URACE Director Lisa Piazza.
The two-semester program is targeted at incoming freshmen, transfer and continuing students who hold a Federal Work Study award.
The program, which began in fall semester, requires a commitment for the entire academic year. In fall semester, students learn research techniques and job skills and, taking what they learn, carry those into spring semester when they complete a research project under the guidance of a faculty member. The program culminates with presentation at RESEARCH Dialogues.
“This program targets students without prior research experience, first-generation college students and students from underrepresented and underserved populations with the aim of expanding UR opportunities to more students. Students in this program make contributions through research endeavors, explore their passions and acquire skills to successfully navigate the world of work or advanced study,” Piazza said.
In fall semester, students learn research techniques and, taking what they learn, carry that into spring semester when they complete a research project under the guidance of a faculty member.
“Through this program, we aim to expand URACE opportunities to a larger segment of UTC undergraduates,” Piazza said.
Along with Paige’s research in pre-Columbian artifacts, other students are researching how to speed up face-recognition processes, germination rates of plant seeds and students’ opinions on getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Dallas Jones is exploring ways to speed up image processing through computer commands that work together simultaneously.
Research in URTOPS shows “that students who engage in intentional, academic experiences such as URACE earn higher grades and graduate on time. Undergraduate researchers also acquire critical skills necessary for professional success,” Piazza said.
“The benefits of participation are long-lasting and profound. These types of academic experiences can change the trajectory of a student’s academic journey, career path and one’s life purpose,” Piazza said.
This is a new, virtual international research internship. Six students will participate in the inaugural cohort this summer. During the internship, students will work with host agencies in Kenya, South Africa and the Netherlands to explore issues around women’s rights, public health in the tropics, environmental sustainability, sexuality and diplomacy.
As the name says, the internship—a partnership between URACE and the Study Abroad program—is a five-week program in which students will be in contact with their overseas partners online. During the internship, students will complete mini research projects, participate in meetings and roundtables with internship hosts, and engage in additional hands-on activities.
Through Zoom meetings with participants from each country, students will join organizational meetings, business meetings and meetings with those working on the same issues, Piazza said.
“They’re really making an effort, uh, to get the students involved,” she said.
At the same time, the collaboration will be reciprocal, with UTC students offering new ideas and perspectives from the United States.
With all the work loaded on students’ plates, there’s no time to slack off, she said.
“This is not a situation where you’re taking an online class and just sitting there. You really have to go out and make the most of this and make yourself known and seen.
“I said to them, ‘You’ve got to be really active because there’s a potential here for you to get a lot out of this experience, to use this for networking. You never know, if you’re global in your career, this could be a really neat way to get out there and make some connections.’”
The eight-week program focuses on research exploration and skills, professional development, and networking. Institute participants attend virtual seminars, network with current undergraduate researchers, and build career skills.
Students in the program will also learn how to identify research opportunities on campus, how to network with prospective faculty mentors and how to apply for graduate school, medical school and summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs from the National Science Foundation around the United States.
Although it is open to students on all levels and all majors, it is aimed at those with no research experience, first-generation college students and students from underrepresented and underserved populations.
“It’s a way to learn about what research is. Think about the next steps. Think about professional development,” Piazza explained. “If you’re looking at medical school or graduate school or even a job, what does that look like?”
Like the international internship, the schedule is tight and time-consuming.
“They’re going to have a lot to do in those five weeks,” Piazza said.
The Learning Institute debuted in summer semester 2020 and, at the end, students universally praised the program and its results.
“I was blown away because students want this information. They want to be engaged. They want to learn about these things and the interest is there to get involved,” Piazza said.
While the three programs directly help the students involved in them, they also will reach out to students campus-wide, Piazza said.
“All of these programs that we’re running, it’s telling me a few things about where we are right now. And one of them, I think, is that the word-of-mouth and culturally, we’re moving in a direction where students are seeing the value, for students to have a peer say, ‘Look, this is hard work, but it’s worth it. I’m doing it.’”