Posters in Parliament
Posted on: February 1, 2016 by: Stuart Hampton-Reeves
Tomorrow, for the fourth time, BCUR is returning to Parliament to present some of the best undergraduate research in the country to an audience of MPs, Lords, Vice-Chancellors and some of the most influential people in Higher Education.
The students’ work will be judged by a distinguished panel that includes Sir Anthony Cleaver, Chair of the Natural Environment Research Council, and Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
This year, 27 universities are taking part. Universities from every part of the sector are included, from Russell Group institutions like Warwick and Southampton to new universities like the University of Central Lancashire. We also have two entries from further education colleges, which shows that the spirit of research and enquiry is flourishing in every part of the sector.
Posters in Parliament is a great exhibition of what Higher Education is best at: taking students out of the received structures of knowledge and exposing them to the restless pursuit of knowledge. All of these students learn through discovery.
Every year, our audiences are stunned by the quality of the work they see. The students are articulate and their work is often as important and rigorous as anything you will see in an academic journal. And increasingly, many of them are publishing in good journals before they have finished their degree.
Why should this be a surprise though? We know how good our best students are. Today’s undergraduates are next year’s PhD students. It won’t be too long before they are standing in front of classes teaching and submitting work for peer review.
Of course, there is an underlying politics to the event. How could an event in Parliament not be political? The message of the event is a clear one. Research cannot be separated from teaching in a healthy academic environment. Undergraduate Research brings the two together. It demonstrates how learning in research-mode is one of the most powerful forms of learning we have. But also, these students are already making a real contribution to research.
One of the main challenges of the event is that few of the people attending will be able to understand that technicalities of the research project. The presenters have to find ways to articulate their findings to a general audience. That is a great skill for a young academic to learn.
Posters in Parliament is modelled on a similar event in America called Posters on the Hill. The format is the same, except that in the US the event is funded by the American Chemical Society (the largest academic society in the world) and students spend the morning at the White House before going over to Capitol Hill to meet senators and their representatives. I attended Posters on the Hill in 2014 and met several politicians with students, including Paul Ryan, who is now Speaker of the House. The US government understands the economic importance of stimulating a healthy culture of undergraduate research – that is why the White House is open to undergraduate researchers every spring, and why every April one week is reserved as National Undergraduate Research Week. President Obama was a famous undergraduate researcher himself as the editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Posters in Parliament is still a young event. It has inspired a similar event in Australia and slowly the momentum around Undergraduate research is beginning to build. The students who present tomorrow are part of a generation of academics who will gain their first experience of research as an undergraduate, and whose first experience of a conference will be the British Conference of Undergraduate Research. The exhibition tomorrow will not just be a celebration of work that has been done, it will also offer a glimpse into the future of British academia.