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U-M program reshapes undergrad research

By: Fernanda Pires

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower Image credit: Sean Carter

The curiosity and passion for understanding the use of literary expressions as nonviolent resistance brought together University of Michigan professor Samer Ali and student Elizabeth Tower.

After Tower, a junior majoring in international studies, took Ali’s class on peace and nonviolence in Islamic cultures, she wanted to dive deeper into Arabic art forms, such as music, poetry, film and more. Their similar research interests connected them and a mentor-mentee journey began.

Ali then suggested Tower join the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, so they would have up to two years to develop a research project and the resources to build it. She jumped all in and next week will share their experience working together at UROP’s annual research symposium April 20.

“Mentoring is usually one-on-one and one of the best types of teaching,” said Ali, associate professor of Middle East studies. “It’s very practice-oriented, and we’re addressing problems, talking about the trade-offs that go with each solution. I learned how to teach using the philosophy of John Dewey, “learning by doing” and then engaging the mind, body, and heart of the whole human being.”

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower Image credit: Sean Carter

UROP Mentor Samer Ali (right) and Elizabeth Tower. Image credit: Sean Carter. 

Ali and Tower have been working together for the past two years. Their research falls under a broader umbrella: nonviolence in Arabic-Islamic cultures.

“It’s the capacity of human and literary expressions to transform social reality in a nonviolent way,” Ali said. “It’s nonviolence and the idea of creative resistance to injustice.”

Tower’s work intends to demonstrate that Palestinian hip-hop is a multimedia cultural movement that blends multiple forms of art at every possible stage: inspiration, production and integration into society.

“As a genre characterized by intermediality and multifunctionality, Palestinian hip-hop transcends cultural, social and political boundaries to offer everyone an access point to resistance,” Tower said. “This research helps us understand how creative work—when coupled with resistance and characterized by intermediality—straddles the boundaries between art, politics, news media and education to make a widely accessible form of creative resistance.”For Tower, the most valuable part of being a UROP student is the mentorship relationship.

“Professor Ali has not only guided me through my research, but he has spent endless time helping me as a writer,” Tower said. “He’s also looked for opportunities for me to present my research and to network with other scholars. It has just enriched this experience for me as a student and as a scholar.”

In its 34th edition, the UROP symposium, which has about 58,000 alumni, celebrates the partnerships created between students and research mentors.

It is a capstone project for more than 1,000 undergraduate students—from arts and Humanities, engineering and environmental sciences to physical sciences, public health and social sciences—conducting research around campus. They will present in a hybrid format this year, returning to in-person research presentations at the Michigan League.

“Seeing all the research posters, listening to students present their work, and all the energy and excitement in one space will be exciting,” said program director Michelle Ferrez. “Many of our undergraduate researchers have been looking forward to this opportunity. It is always a rewarding time for the UROP staff and research mentors to see how much a student has developed and grown in the past year.”

For Ferrez, research and scholarship are how the academic community communicates with the world and, therefore, the contributions from research go well beyond the academy.

“Engaging undergraduate students in research helps them mature as thinkers and doers,” she said. “Research is all about finding an interesting question or scenario and not knowing the answer. In addition, it provides students with an invaluable networking experience. It is those connections and skills they will be able to apply in the future.”

Investigating math learning and teaching

Mentor Vilma Mesa and her students. Image credit: Sean Carter

Mentor Vilma Mesa and her students. Image credit: Sean Carter.

Vilma Mesa, U-M professor of education and mathematics, has mentored 20 UROP students since 2004. This year, she is working with four students to investigate mathematics teaching at community colleges.

Duo Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao spent the last year analyzing qualitative data and calculations to determine how students and instructors use open-access textbooks in college. Another piece of the research is to understand how they can develop textbooks that will improve teaching and learning.

“My UROP researchers are helping us understand the connections between the use of some specific textbook features by college students and how teachers work with these textbooks,” Mesa said. “We have an extensive project that allows us to map and track the viewing of textbooks, and we have identified ways in which teachers and students view particular features.”

During next week’s symposium, Burley-Sanford and Hao will talk about their experience working on this project and discuss some of their findings.

Vilma Mesa, Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao. Image courtesy: Vilma Mesa

Vilma Mesa, Lelia Burley-Sanford and Amy Xinyi Hao. Image courtesy: Vilma Mesa.

“We found interesting differences across our teachers in using one of the textbook features and also differences in the versatility their students describe as using the same feature,” Hao said. “Some instructors use the feature only for planning or only during instruction; using the feature during instruction seems to prompt more students to use the feature to learn the material more.”

With this information, the team believes it can demonstrate that the feature does fulfill the purposes for which it was created.

“Faculty who use the feature for planning and instruction do not see the need to use it for student assessment,” Mesa said. “Adding this component to the feature would be an unnecessary use of resources.”

Burley-Sanford said that once she started the project, she felt overwhelmed and underprepared.

“That is where a great mentor can step in,” she said. “Professor Mesa has been an inspiration and has helped shape my academic experience. I have learned valuable skills that will benefit me both in academia and in life, such as critically thinking about something and analyzing information.

“The best part about having a mentor became clear when she encouraged me not to give up.”

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