Skip to Content

Undergraduate Research in Australia

Undergraduate Research in the Curriculum

'Developing a research-based curriculum means opening up spaces and creating places where students and academics can meet, areas where discussions can take place on research projects; reversing the trend to take over physical spaces intended for both staff and student use. Events, too, need to be opened up to undergraduate students, for example departmental seminars and research meetings.

Opening up research achievements and spaces to make research more visible to everybody is also desirable...[as well as] a need to open up the language of higher education to provide a sense of belonging for everyone who is participating in the university’s educative ventures' (Brew 2006:161-162).

Perhaps the simplest first step is to start by designing assignments or activities to engage students in inquiry. For example, at the University of Gloucestershire students undertake inquiry projects during induction week.

Working in small groups geographers and sociologists research the experience of Gloucester residents of 'The Great Flood of 2007'. Biologists and Psychologists investigate primate behaviour at Bristol Zoo, while English Literature students explore the use of trees in literature. Students begin to engage with discovering new knowledge right from the start of their undergraduate degree.

In first year Biology at the University of Sydney, each student is given a little Petri dish and they each put this in their back yard over a 24 hour period and collect all the fungal spores in the atmosphere. There are 1000 students in the class and they live all over the Sydney metropolitan area. The map below shows the number of samples one cohort collected. There are over 700 in the red area. They bring the samples back to the lab and grow them. The results are mapped onto a geophysical map. This generates new knowledge which is now being published in a scientific journal. Dr Charlotte Taylor describes a thousand students as an 'ideal' size of research team for carrying out research of this nature!

Map of fungi samples taken across Sydney metropolitan area

The Sydney Basin Aerobiology Survey: Involving students in a current research program, as part of the first year Biology curriculum at The University of Sydney (Charlotte Taylor School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney and Brett Green (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA)

In most Australian universities, students engage in research projects in their fourth or honours year, but increasingly we are seeing courses organised around inquiry in earlier years. Murdoch University, for example, has an independent study unit (or subject) where students negotiate a learning contract and carry out an individual research project as part of their degree. At the University of South Australia, a research component is included in undergraduate subjects in Digital Media. Or as in the case of the Australian National University there is the Bachelor of Philosophy (PhB) where students carry out a significant piece of research with academics over a number of subjects for their degree.

There is no reason why year levels within a degree or even postgraduate coursework should not include inquiry based learning.

For a number of years Angela Brew was involved with her colleagues in conducting an inquiry-based course in our graduate certificate in higher education (see Peseta, Brew, McShane & Barrie 2007). The semester proceeded like this:

Inquiry-based course

The whole semester was based on learning through research and inquiry.

Want to know more?