Opening up the Conversation

Research isn’t always done in a lab — McGill’s Inquiry Network brings research and scholarship skills to undergraduate coursework and, in so doing, is expanding its ideas across the University and beyond. //

By Laura Pellerine

These days, George McCourt wears the hats of Associate Director of Undergraduate Affairs as well as Senior Faculty  Lecturer for the McGill School of Environment, but his undergrad career at the University of Alberta didn’t get off to such a great start.

“I came out of high school a top-notch student, and then I walked into this system where it seemed like no one really cared, and I did very poorly,” he says. “I struggled.” “I eventually got my feet on the ground, but I often wonder how many students are lost because the system is not malleable enough to get them engaged? One of the best ways is to engage them in the research process, because as they go through that, they learn, they teach themselves.”

It’s this goal of inspiring undergrad students that is driving many professors at McGill to add research components to their undergraduate classrooms. And they’re finding creative ways of sneaking it in — even when class sizes get into the hundreds.

It all started in 2006, when the University’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) unit was asked to lead a university-wide project examining the links between research, learning and teaching. The result was the formation in 2009 of the Inquiry Network, a group of faculty members from across disciplines that meets once a month to discuss ways of bringing research into the classroom.

“It’s important to help students see their disciplines not as bodies of fact, but as conversations,” says Marcy Slapcoff , leader of the Inquiry Network and educational developer at TLS. “When professors invite them into the conversation, they can contribute their questions, and that’s the key way to help them become better critical thinkers.”

The idea of introducing undergrads to research at universities like McGill isn’t a new one — it first emerged in 1998’s Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University — but the idea of the Inquiry Network is. “The fact that we have leadership like this is unique,” Slapcoff says. “I haven’t come across another group like this.”

The Inquiry Network provides faculty members with resources and support like workshops, and tool kits to help them integrate research into their classrooms. “It’s important to consider how every single McGill student can benefit

from attending a research-intensive university,” says Slapcoff . “There’s only one way to reach every student, and that is through coursework, and that’s a challenge.”

So how are McGill professors meeting this challenge?

“Historically it’s been difficult because of class sizes to imagine how to incorporate research into those courses, but at McGill we’ve come up with strategies to deal with that,” says Terry Hébert, a pharmacology and therapeutics professor. “We can expose students opportunities where they can learn to think critically through smaller exercises — we can’t bring them all into a lab, but we can expose them to the thinking that goes into a lab.”

In his fourth-year Pharmacology Research class, Hébert has students take a complicated subject and simplify it down enough to make it understandable for a lay audience. “In that exercise, it’s generating understanding, making them use their brains to convert the topic into a language that’s different from the author’s,” Hébert explains. “They have to bear down on core essence, make an evaluation about the research, and judge whether or not it was done correctly. It opens their minds to critical spirit.”

The value of assignments like these is that it encourages students to get away from simply memorizing information from a textbook. “There’s a perception that research means having to make an original contribution to a discipline, often by working in a lab or doing research in the library,” Slapcoff says. “But when you change the focus from doing research to

understanding what research is, then it opens up the possibilities.”

This type of thinking is echoed by McCourt. He has students in his Geology Systems class choose a mineral and explore it in a way that’s of interest to them — whether it’s writing about it in the form of a New York Times op-ed piece, a typical scientific paper or a first-person narrative from the mineral’s point of view.

He says, for his students in the School of Environment, learning to become critical thinkers is especially important. “I have many students who are keen on issues around environment and sustainability, and for a lot of them, it’s an emotional, idealistic kind of thing. But if they’re going to be dealing with the general public, then they have to be able to present information in a manner that is clear and concise and be able to support what they’re saying. Introducing them to research leads them to put structure to their thinking.”

His fourth-year environmental students take it one step further. They participate in a senior research project that allows them to work with “real world” clients. In 2008, he had students meet with St. Hubert, a local rotisserie chicken chain, to determine how the company could reduce its waste and energy consumption.

“We showed if they composted their waste, they could reduce their carbon emissions by something like 40 percent,” McCourt says. “A couple of their restaurants even began to compost their food waste. The compost produced is now being given away to their customers, which of course encourages the customers to come back and eat more chicken.”

In 2010, his students also looked at how to make the seafood options at McGill’s residences more sustainable.

“We helped create a system of tracing where the food was coming from, and showed how you could check to make sure the food was being caught and handled in a sustainable manner,” McCourt says. “This year, McGill became the first university in Canada to have all of its seafood being used in the residences certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.”

McGill Inquiry Network
Members of the McGill Inquiry Network, a cross disciplinary group of McGill faculty members who meet regularly to explore how to engage undergraduate students with the processes of research and scholarship within coursework.

There are similar types of research internships available on campus with programs like SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering) and ARIA (Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Awards), where students get to work closely with their professors on one of their research projects for 16 weeks over the summer.

But while these off er fantastic opportunities for the students involved, it’s the ones who aren’t involved that the Inquiry Network is trying to reach.

“By their nature, these programs only serve a limited number of students and are mostly faculty-specific,” Slapcoff says. “The work the Inquiry Network is doing is thinking about how to reach every student. We can’t expect every student to do individual research, but at least they can develop an enhanced understanding of what evidence-based research is.”

“When four-year undergrads don’t go on to grad school, they still make decisions that impact our lives,” Hébert says. “We want them to be able to point out the fact that the emperor has no clothes. McGill’s in the business of forming citizens, not just educating students to do a job.” ■

 Enhancing Student’s Understanding of Research through Coursework

DAVID RAGSDALE teaches Human Physiology to a class of 1,100 students who examine evolving understandings of the neuron, from Ramon y Cajal’s.

early 20-century drawings to the adoption of the idea of the chemical synapse.

DIK HARRIS teaches Thermal and Statistical Physics to a class of 40-50 students who use problem sets to look at assumptions and limitations of traditional theoretical models.


ANNIE SAVARD teaches Teaching Mathematics 1 to a class of 160 students who use role play to test new, group-based approaches to teaching math.

RICHARD CHROMIK teaches Properties of Materials in Electrical Engineering to a class of 40-60 students who interview McGill professors to find out how they apply engineering principles in their research.