Inquiring Minds

on March 14, 2014 in Features with 0 Comments

Undergraduate researchers discover expanded opportunities
to learn and explore

by Chris Lazzarino

2.14_f1_paul-thomas1xThe forgotten little chapel nestled in a roadside grove northeast of Ottawa has been through this before. In its earlier lifetime, the turn-of-the-century limestone sanctuary offered its pulpit to Baker University students studying to one day preach in a parish of their own. Then came a lightning strike or perhaps a prairie fire, after which the chapel was probably repaired just enough to get demoted to farm shed. It was finally abandoned in the 1950s, left to sink into its itself.

More than a half-century later, Center Chapel, as it was known back when it was still beloved and cared for and carried a name, is once again opening itself to education.

“I remember going out there with my family and looking at it,” says Paul Thomas, a KU anthropology and classical antiquity senior from Ottawa. “It was really pretty in the fall, the leaves were falling and the sun was going through the windows. Now it’s covered in trees and grass and kind of beat up, but I always thought it was really interesting.

“But there’s not a lot of evidence about it. Not a lot of people have studied it.”

Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas

Thomas chose to follow his curiosity. Encouraged by psychology professor Michael Vitevitch, with whom he’d taken a University Honors Program class on undergraduate research, Thomas last spring prepared a detailed research prospectus and submitted it for an Undergraduate Research Award.

The program has been around for more than 20 years, but has begun a new era of prominence. Last spring was the first time it was administered by the recently created Center For Undergraduate Research. Paul Thomas and 57 other students each received $1,000 to fund their extracurricular forays, and, more important, encouragement to learn, discover and share.

“Undergraduate research galvanizes the KU experience as the students start to really understand their discipline and the thing that they’re learning in class,” says John Augusto, g’95, PhD’09, assistant vice provost and center director. “It’s not something new. We have a long, strong tradition here at KU of students getting involved with research. But while undergraduate research has always been a strong tradition, it’s never been very visible outside of the individual departments. The center gives us a platform to offer a Universitywide approach to supporting undergraduate research.”

With advice from Associate Professor Philip Stinson, an architecture specialist in the classics department and Thomas’ research mentor, Thomas purchased drafting equipment to accurately draw the chapel’s stones and tools needed to measure the structure’s dimensions.

2.14_f1_videoAs he set about mapping and investigating, the forlorn country church began to reveal its secrets. Based on charred remains of wood and discolored rocks, and a jumble of rotting artifacts suited to a farm building, Thomas developed a hypothesis that the chapel had burned at least once, perhaps twice, and for an unknown period of time probably offered sanctuary to livestock rather than worshippers.

He continued his research by examining historical documents and interviewing area residents who could offer snippets of memory about Center Chapel.

“I’ve always been interested in the cultural side of archaeology,” he says, “and this is a similar experience: talking to people, finding out what they know, researching documents, going out and looking for the artifacts, trying to figure out where they fit into the time frame and where they’re from. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the drawing and measuring and everything, but it was the analysis of history that was very much what I’m drawn toward, so it did reaffirm what I want to do, and it gave me a good chance to practice it before I go out in the real world or apply for grad school.

“Otherwise, I wouldn’t really know what I was getting into. This allowed me to know what this career would be like. I definitely enjoyed it. It was fun and I can see myself doing it.”

Thomas encourages his fellow students to seek similar opportunities. Reach out to faculty, ask questions, formulate an idea, take a chance.

“These research projects don’t have to be super complex or expensive,” he says. “You can start out simple, which I definitely recommend. The chapel that I was doing wasn’t the most complex; it was actually kind of a simple project. It cost a little bit of money, but it wasn’t unmanageable. A lot of people think research is translating Latin scrolls or uncovering the pyramids. It’s not, and there’s so many professors and organizations that are willing to help you.

“It’s not impossible. It’s actually very possible. You just kind of ask around and formulate an idea and you’re on your way.”

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