April 8, 2004  
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Through the looking glass: an examination of university research

By Kelly Marcella
Gazette Staff

Dallas Curow/Gazette
AND THE MAGIC BOOK WAS CALLED THE NEVERENDING STORY... Not all research can be as exciting as Bastiaan’s magical trip to Fantastica, but some brave souls are doing it nonetheless.

As undergraduate students, we spend most of our time going between classes, the library and the bar. However, Western’s campus is home to a host of innovative research endeavours, something that, as undergraduate students, we rarely consider in our daily routines.

Research in the university setting is one of the main tasks undertaken by professors and graduate students at Western. Unbeknownst to most undergraduates, academic research ensures that what each student is learning is cutting edge and current.

“The research enterprise is an integral part of what the university is all about in North America,” said Western’s VP-research Nils Petersen. “North America has a particular culture of integration of research and teaching in the university environment.”

Petersen explained that the mandate for professors is to spend roughly half their time on research, half on teaching and participate in some administrative tasks as well. “In reality, research is what drives people to a university as compared to many other kinds of institutions.”

The relationship between teaching and research is something that Western values highly. “[Research] is in a symbiotic relationship with teaching. We always argue that we want the relationship between teaching and research to be there so that one can inform the other,” Petersen explained.

The emphasis on the balance between research and teaching is where undergraduate students benefit from those areas in which their professors excel.

“In a research intensive university, [undergraduates] are the recipients of the most current state of the knowledge, as compared to a university where maybe that knowledge might go stale because researchers are not engaged in the curriculum and the teaching is most relevant to what’s going on,” he noted. “Most importantly, the curriculum will not stay current if we don’t have people who are at the leading edge of research fields.”

Albert Katz, president of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association, said he agreed with the importance of this relationship between teaching and research.

“I think it reinforces aspects of what students learn,” he said. “Research keeps you at the front of what you are teaching, it keeps people up-to-date,” Katz explained. “It is a sore mistake to think that one detracts from the other.”

Katz said he believes teaching is first and foremost, but in no way does research take away from it. “Teaching and research complement each other,” he said, adding it facilitates independent thought and teaches conceptual skills of thought and analysis.

“Research skills are life skills,” Katz added. “Special skills are necessary for effective classroom teaching.”

“We have a shifting landscape where — for the first time probably ever — the federal government and the provincial governments across the country recognize universities as the centrepiece of the new economy,” Petersen said, noting more energy has been directed at learning how to bring the resources of the universities to society as a whole. “It’s not just creating new knowledge, but also using that knowledge and applying it.”

—with files from Chris Sinal
and Anton Vidgen




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