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Warren Wilson College: a leader in original undergraduate research

The North Carolina Academy of ScienceThe North Carolina Academy of Science, established in 1902, “promotes public appreciation of science, science education, scientific research and a meaningful role for science in public policy.” Its Collegiate Academy, or CANCAS, is a community of undergraduate students and faculty advisers that annually recognizes outstanding undergraduate research through grants and awards.

Quick quiz: Over the past decade, which N.C. college or university has had the largest number of undergraduate students win grants and prizes for their original research? Despite its relatively small size, Warren Wilson College leads the way – by significant margins.

Derieux Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Research are presented each spring at the NCAS annual meeting. Ably directed by Warren Wilson’s accomplished science faculty, WWC students have won nearly 50 awards since 2004, significantly more than any other institution’s aggregate.

The Warren Wilson total is even more impressive for the Yarbrough Research Grants program, which “supports undergraduate research by providing grants to students who submit grant proposals judged meritorious of support.” Since 2004, 55 WWC students have received grants – more than the total received by students at all other N.C. colleges and universities combined.

By any standard, those are eye-popping numbers for a college that has never enrolled more than 950 undergraduate students in a single academic year. How have they been accomplished?

“We put a lot of effort and resources into undergraduate research in all the science departments at Warren Wilson,” said Paul Bartels, biology and environmental studies professor and chair of the Division of Natural Science and Math. “We believe in learning by doing, and students learn to DO science through our Natural Science Undergraduate Research Sequence (NSURS).

“NSURS has been the jewel in the crown of our curriculum since the mid 1980s. It consists of a three-course sequence required of all science students. Students select a faculty mentor who works one-on-one to guide students through the entire scientific enterprise: hypothesis development, experimental design, data collection and data analysis.

“Through the process students write grant proposals and a thesis, and present their work orally to a packed room of their peers and professors. It’s a daunting gauntlet, but also a recipe for success and for most science students a highlight of their academic career.

“We also know that the process is a major stepping stone to graduate and professional schools and to careers in the sciences, and it’s gratifying to see all the awards our students receive,” Bartels said.