The 24th Annual California State University (CSU) Student Research Competition is underway for students who want to compete at the state level at the end of April. The competition promotes graduate and undergraduate work from the 23 CSU campuses.
The contest, which is hosted by a different campus each year (this year’s will be held at San Jose State University), is open to all students in the CSU system as well as those who graduated last spring or later. Applicants can choose to do their research on any topic that relates to their particular field of study. The dean of the student’s college evaluates all projects before they are given to Susan Opava, dean of research and graduate programs.
When reviewing projects that will be sent to Opava, Camille O’Bryant, kinesiology department chair, said the College of Science and Mathematics looks for student projects that show variety in the kinesiology field such as the psychology of exercise or adaptive physical activity, as well as being appropriate for the particular science the student is researching.
“I just want to see that it’s something that’s grounded in the current trend of kinesiology and physical education,” O’Bryant said.
Not all student projects go on to compete in San Jose, however. The competitors are reduced to 10 after presenting their work to the academic senate grants review committee, a subcommittee of the academic senate comprised of representatives from each college.
When selecting the projects that will move on to compete with other universities, Opava said the Cal Poly panel looks for clarity, organization, interpretation of results and also what will be best received by the competition judges. In the past, Opava has seen projects that were higher in quality but too advanced.
“It’s been very hard actually, because usually they’re all meritorious and sometimes it’s a question of ‘Well, what’s likely to be better received by judges?’” Opava said. “They might be equally good projects, but this one probably has a better chance at winning something.”
Cal Poly is no stranger when it comes to winning the competition. In 2005, six of the nine competitors sent to represent the university took home first and second place awards in the 10 categories. In the past five years, Cal Poly students have won multiple awards every year except for 2006. Opava said it’s Cal Poly’s reputation for research excellence that should interest the average student in their peers’ work.
“I would want to be able to brag about my university,” Opava said. “I wouldn’t want to be able to just talk about the athletic program if I was a football player. I’d want to be able to say, ‘Yeah, Cal Poly is a great place, and students do great things in engineering and in agriculture.’ Just like the engineers go to football games, it’d be nice for even a football player to care about some engineering project.”
One dean said the act of actually participating in research is just as important because it prepares students for their future career in which good writing skills and communication will be beneficial. Mark Shelton, the associate dean for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences said the agriculture college generally receives anywhere from two to six applicants each year on topics such as dairy product research, soil science, horticulture and animal science. Shelton said encouraging students to do academic research further emphasizes Cal Poly’s ‘learn by doing’ philosophy.
“This is a technical university, it’s not a technical school or a technical college but it’s a school that emphasizes technology and science no matter your major,” Shelton said. “I think research is just a natural outcome of a school that emphasizes scientific and technical education.”
The students’ ability to conduct research and understand their findings in relation to their particular field of interest is important when being judged at the final competition with other schools.
At the state level, participants present their project in front of an audience and a panel of judges made up of people from various industries, or from private or University of California schools. Students have 10 minutes to give their oral presentation, which can include audio and visual demonstrations, before answering questions from the judges and, if time allows, the audience. A portion of their overall score is based on how well they answer questions.
While giving a good presentation in front of a panel of judges is important, seeing the work from other students is just as important. Competing against the other schools allows students to see the academic successes of their peers at other universities, Opava said. In doing so, students get an eye-opener at the academic abilities of other CSU students.
“There are many universities where students are getting just as good an education as we are and are doing really great things as well,” Opava said. “I think we tend to often minimize the value of other CSU campuses because we’re always singled out as being the best campus in the CSU system, and I think it’s kind of eye-opening to go out there and see that we’re not always the best. Students will win prizes, and we won’t, and when you look at what they’ve done, you can see the justification for it.”
Competing against other students wasn’t what drew kinesiology senior Katy Vaughan to enter the competition. After completing her senior project last year, Vaughan was encouraged to enter her research into the competition by her advisor.
Her study, which focused on the health status of Cal Poly’s faculty and their risk for cardiovascular disease, allowed her to interact with real-life subjects and put to use some of the skills she acquired in classes. Subjects were asked to fill out questionnaires, perform exercise tests and have their glucose levels tested.
Preparation for her project took two quarters, during which she had to train assistants to read tests and gather paperwork needed for the study. In particular, she said her research was necessary because of how imperative it is for people to know their health risks.
“I think it’s important to conduct research and educate participants and people in general about cardiovascular disease,” Vaughan said. “It was awesome to be able to do my project for my senior project as opposed to just doing a paper because it was such a great experience for me. I got to work with subjects and work with faculty that I don’t normally work with. I worked with professors from all different disciplines.”
Advisers, instructors and deans have been pushing the competition a little more this year in all of the colleges. Debra Valencia-Laver, associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts, said the college hasn’t changed its practices in terms of promoting the competition, but advisors and instructors inquired about it earlier in the year than usual. She thinks a reason for this is because of two more graduate programs in liberal arts: history and public policy. Valencia-Laver is expecting five to 10 entries this year from the college and hopes that the added applicants will add a bit more competition and quality of projects to the event.
“I think the College of Liberal Arts is kind of an untapped resource in terms of its participation in the CSU research competition, and I think we have some great potential there, so I’m excited about that,” Valencia-Laver said. “I have to say we haven’t really participated, I think, at as high a level as we could have or should have in the past. In some ways, I’m kind of looking forward to upping the competition and getting more College of Liberal Arts students involved.”
However, increased quality of projects can be a drawback for the students. While the judges typically include professionals from various industries, Opava said the projects that go above and beyond are sometimes overlooked because the judges don’t realize the project is “really pushing the frontier.” Thus Opava said she warns students that when they’re presenting to the panel, they aren’t always going to be talking to experts. The projects that are relevant to the time though, “seem to rise to the top.”
“You’re not going to be able to get judges that are experts in everything that they’re going to see there and occasionally a project will win more because it fit the judge’s field of knowledge and they understand it,” Opava said. “And some other project that we felt was really spectacular just flew over their heads.”
Even so, Opava enjoys seeing the competition between the different colleges and going to the state competition to see the different studies students have conducted.
“I have a really busy schedule, and I always start grousing about having to go to the competition, but then it’s always so fun,” Opava said. “And it’s such a pleasure to be there with the students, and I quite enjoy it actually.”
Approximately 200 students will participate in the competition being held at San Jose State University from April 30 to May 1. The final competition is split up in 10 sections with an undergraduate and a graduate division in each. First place winners receive approximately $300 and second place winners receive $200.
The Cal Poly finalists will be decided after a presentation in front of the academic senate grants review committee Feb. 27.