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The magic behind the high-impact discoveries from Utah’s universities

There is a kind of magic that happens when students apply their knowledge in a tangible, research-driven setting

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Utah and Utah State students present research ideas at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

University of Utah graduate Angus Wu listens to Josh Gubler’s presentation about using electrical signals in the muscle to control devices as Utah and Utah State students present research ideas at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

On Jan. 18, Utah’s two Carnegie-classified R1 public research universities showed off the best work of their undergraduate researchers during the Utah Legislature’s spring session. Ever since the first Research on Capitol Hill, or ROCH, event in 2001, state leaders have had the chance every year to see high-impact discoveries from Utah State University and University of Utah students. 

The 50 projects selected for ROCH each year are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of undergraduate research at our institutions. R1 universities — designated as having very high research activity, with an emphasis on cutting-edge studies across disciplines — offer a fertile ground for students to immerse themselves in the world of discovery. This year’s research posters included fields as diverse as seismology, kinesiology and music, and also included areas vital to Utah’s economy, such as computer science, life sciences and engineering. 

There is a kind of magic that happens when students apply their knowledge in a tangible, research-driven setting. These opportunities not only enrich the educational experience, but they also prepare students for successful careers, adding talent to Utah’s workforce and impacting the economic prosperity of our state.

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University of Utah and Utah State students present research ideas at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Workforce development

Undergraduate research at R1 universities acts as an invaluable bridge between classroom learning and real-world application, particularly in the cultivation of critical thinking skills. Student researchers work on complex, real-world problems, and they must learn to navigate the ambiguities inherent in research. This sharpens their ability to think analytically. Employers value individuals who can approach challenges with a strategic mindset, making graduates with research experience top candidates in the job market. 

According to the Boyer 2030 Commission report, undergraduate research serves a pivotal role in fostering excellence in higher education. We know these experiences significantly enhance learning, engagement and the overall quality of undergraduate education. By promoting undergraduate research, universities can offer an exceptional educational experience that prepares students for 21st century challenges. 

Academic outcomes and career opportunities

Undergraduate research fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility among students, which translates into better academic outcomes and valuable workplace skills. This ownership fuels motivation and nurtures a lifelong commitment to learning and exploration. 

At Utah State, home to one of the oldest undergraduate research programs in the nation, even one documented engagement with undergraduate research — such as a research-based course or an internship — coincides with a 14% increase in GPA. In 2021, USU was named a national leader in undergraduate research by the Council for Undergraduate Research.

The U.’s Office of Undergraduate Research facilitates student-faculty research collaborations for thousands of students every year, providing funding, scholarships and opportunities to publish and present their work. In the U.’s College of Science, 60% of undergraduates participate in cohort-based scientific research through the U.’s innovative Science Research Initiative program. In addition, the U.’s health sciences campus offers hands-on opportunities to learn about challenges in patient care and to develop tangible solutions.

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University of Utah and Utah State students present research ideas at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A stronger Utah

Utah’s future as a leader in technology, energy, biomedical science and education depends on training tomorrow’s workers and researchers and incentivizing them to stay in state. Undergraduate research at Utah’s R1 institutions is key in accomplishing this goal. Of students who are graduating with a bachelor’s degree at Utah State, 25% say they have worked with a faculty member on research outside the classroom or program requirements. Many of these students go on to enroll in graduate and professional programs in state. As at USU, undergraduate research at the U. prepares students for advanced degrees and careers in priority fields such as science, technology, engineering, medicine, social sciences and humanities. Of students who are funded to do research at the U., 23% go on to graduate school at the U. In addition, 62% of these students graduate in four years and 91% graduate within six years. 

In the dynamic landscape of higher education, R1 universities stand out as vibrant hubs of discovery and exploration. At USU and the U., our undergraduate research programs serve as incubators for talent, nurturing students with a passion for inquiry and equipping them with valuable workplace skills. Engaging undergraduates in research not only propels students toward a successful career but also propels our state toward a strong future defined by innovation and economic prosperity.

Taylor Randall is the 17th president of the University of Utah. Elizabeth (Betsy) R. Cantwell is the 17th president of Utah State University.