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Psychology Professor Begins Role as URI Director

Institute Report, December 2010

Lt. Col. Keith Kline came to VMI five years ago seeking a student-focused teaching environment – a place where students come first. He found what he was looking for at the Institute and now has the opportunity to take it a step further as director of undergraduate research.

“I’ve inherited a very successful, nationally recognized program,” said Kline, an associate professor of psychology. “I’d like to build on this strong foundation and help create a culture of undergraduate research at VMI.”

“Creating a culture of undergraduate research” is a catch phrase Kline has heard over the past year or two, and it’s one that fits his goals for the Undergraduate Research Initiative.

“At certain times it feels like a culture here at VMI, but it doesn’t feel like a culture in enough ways and enough in frequency,” he said. “We’ve got to make undergraduate research more pervasive, and one way to start is to integrate undergraduate research into our methods of teaching and learning. If we continue to rethink the way we teach and encourage our students to learn using active, inquiry-based methods, we will take a step toward embedding undergraduate research into our culture.”

To that end, Kline is focusing his initial efforts to create this culture on the faculty. On Dec. 3, he led a workshop on integrating undergraduate research into the curriculum. He based the workshop on ideas he’s gathered at conferences and from other schools with strong undergraduate research programs.

Faculty also can apply for grants through a new developmental grant program, Integrating Undergraduate Research into the Curriculum, which offers funding to redesign a current course they’re teaching or to create a new class that incorporates creative ways to foster undergraduate research. Professors can apply independently or work together to create a course or small cluster of thematically related courses, and grant proposals are due on Jan. 31, 2011. Amended courses could begin as early as this summer or next fall, while new courses would have to go through a longer approval process.

“I’d like to see us get past viewing undergraduate research as an optional activity and get to a point where it’s seen as essential to a cadet’s education,” said Kline. “I don’t see every cadet equally embracing this type of work, but I think every student should be exposed to it at some level. We face a number of challenges that make culture change difficult, but these challenges don’t make it impossible; we just have to be flexible and work around them.”

A psychology professor whose specialties include biopsychology and psychophysiology, Kline is no stranger to research. At VMI, he has received the Dr. D. Rae Carpenter Award for the best research proposal submitted to the VMI Research Committee for a research grant, and he has collaborated with cadets on award-winning presentations at the Undergraduate Research Symposium and on Summer Undergraduate Research Institute projects. Kline also received the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award in 2008.

Kline could have remained at a larger institution where research is the priority, but he believes his place is in an environment that fosters teaching and one where undergraduate research is an important part of the learning process.

“There are benefits of undergraduate research for both faculty and students, but especially for students,” said Kline. “When cadets take part in research, there’s a transformational type of learning that takes place. They learn about themselves and gain confidence and life skills that are attractive in the workplace.”

Kline added that undergraduate research experience provides leadership development to those who will commission. He considers it essential for those students interested in pursuing graduate degrees upon graduating from VMI.

Kline added that faculty who engage with their students in one-on-one research projects experience the reward of mentoring them in a project to its completion and often are able to facilitate their own research projects. Most importantly, faculty members have the opportunity to make an impact on their students’ lives.

“One of my most rewarding moments as a teacher came with a phone call from one of my students’ mothers,” said Kline. “Through a research project we worked on together, he discovered he was intelligent. It wasn’t what I taught him as much as that I drew it out of him and helped him overcome his own perceived limitations. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of success.”

Kline said he is excited about the challenge of leading the URI and cultivating a culture of undergraduate research at VMI.

“VMI has been a tremendous fit for me, and undergraduate research is something I’m really passionate about,” he said. “Leading the URI is a new and unique challenge, and I think my background has prepared me for it well.”