It would be difficult to find an Indiana University first-year student who hasn’t used a smartphone camera. Whether taking photos of a nice dinner or posing with friends, students are no stranger to documenting their lives photographically. But in a unique course meant to introduce them to college, over 100 first-year students involved with the Hudson & Holland Scholars Program have learned to use their phones’ cameras in a new way: to conduct research on some of the most pressing issues college students face.
This goal is the central aim of a new research project introduced to the U215 Foundations of Undergraduate Success at Research Universities course. A collaboration between the IU School of Education and the Hudson & Holland Scholars Program, the course allows first-year Hudson & Holland Scholars to experience undergraduate research while acclimating to the demands of college academic life. Using the popular photovoice methodology, which was implemented with assistance from IU Libraries and the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, students in the course combined photography and academic research to study and identify solutions to issues relevant to their lives.
“It’s one thing for students to learn about the scientific method, for example, to understand how to articulate a hypothesis, how to write a book review or review the literature,” Said Gerardo Gonzalez, dean emeritus of the Indiana University School of Education and professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. “It’s another thing for them to have the experience of doing it.”
In tackling some of the thorniest social issues using research and photography, the students in the course come well prepared. The Hudson & Holland Scholars Program, a program supported by the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs, recruits a diverse population of high-achieving students to attend Indiana University. Combined with their prior academic talents and the dedicated instruction they receive, scholars leave the class having learned the basics of academic research while developing the study skills necessary to succeed in college.
“It was just so thrilling to see our scholars engaged in a cutting edge research methodology,” said Marsha McGriff, Director of the Hudson & Holland Scholars Program. ”I could tell they were very engaged in the process and super excited to share their work with the campus community,”
For students in the class, central to the photovoice program was selecting a topic to study. Instructors in the class encouraged students to draw from the environment around them, using their experiences as college students to inform the research they would conduct. Once they chose their topic, students took photographs related to their topic around campus, deeply examining the images for what they communicated about their selected issue. These observations would then provide a key source of insights students could incorporate into their poster presentations and final papers.
“Not many first-year students get to participate in undergraduate research, especially in their first semester,” said Gloria Howell, a doctoral student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program of the School of Education and the lead associate instructor of the course. “This is a very unique opportunity.”
To aid students in their research, IU Libraries worked with the course to introduce the photovoice methodology, connect students with information resources across the university, and ensure that students had the tools they needed to pursue academic scholarship. Doing so, according to Julie Marie Frye, head of the Education Library, not only helped students understand the methodology, but also connected them to scholarly information that reinforced their photographic work. Ultimately, IU Libraries will invite students to publish their projects in the Journal of Undergraduate Research and IUScholarWorks, ensuring that their work will exemplify the research experience from start to finish.
“We don’t believe that these students are the next generation of scholars,” Frye said. “We exist, in part, to help them identify as scholars and published authors today.”
Part of what made the approach so powerful, Gonzalez said, was that students were able to draw from their lived experience to inform the research they conduct in the classroom. Many of the students, he said, had already begun to develop compelling insights that the university could implement to address problems as varied as student nutritional support, alcohol abuse, and stress management.
Also key, Howell added, was the project’s ultimate goal of transforming students from passive consumers of information into active agents of knowledge creation and change in the community. For her, working with students to help make this possible was an especially fulfilling experience.
“To merge all those things together in one semester is awesome. It’s great to watch, it’s great to guide the students through it,” Howell said.
Though their papers were not due for another week or two, by November 30, students in the course already had much to show for their work. In an exposition held in the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center that day, dozens of scholars, staff, and faculty gathered to attend the students’ poster presentations. Throughout the room, students guided visitors through their research, their photographs depicting topics as diverse and varied as the students themselves.
One of those students was Leeyah Adams, a first-year scholar from Chicago, Illinois. Adams’ photo, taken when she was walking home from the library late at night, showed her shadow arcing across a sidewalk as another female student passed by. Adams was investigating rape culture on college campuses, and she used her photograph to examine the ways she or the other student would be treated if they were assaulted on a late-night walk across campus.
In studying this crucial topic, Adams found the photographic element of her project to be critical.
“Pictures speak louder than words,” Adams said.