Uniting to Help Students SOAR – Working Across Disciplines to Develop a Student-Centric Research Symposium

By Teresa Kelly, Kaplan University Composition Faculty

 

shutterstock_182845946In higher education, when a challenge presents itself, interdisciplinary collaboration often results in better outcomes than having a single person dedicated to working  the problem or driving an initiative. Sometimes, this collaboration is by design, but more often than not, it grows out of mutual interests, common goals, and individual skills.  Such is the case for one initiative at Kaplan University designed to address the “skills gap” and the need for experiential learning. School of Business and Information Technology Associate Dean Tina Burton and Graduate IT Academic Department Chair Kristina Setzekorn, PhD., proposed a dynamic idea to repurpose something familiar – the academic conference – into a vehicle for students and alumnae to demonstrate marketable skills. The Kaplan University First Annual Interdisciplinary Virtual Student Research symposium (called SOARS for Student Online Academic Research symposium) will take place Tuesday, November 17, 2015. The engaging idea has drawn in faculty, leadership, and staff from around the University.

The idea for SOARS came from a familiar place – the needs of students before and after graduation. For some time now, the research and conversation around higher education and the labor market has centered on “the skills gap,” and how to address it among new college graduates. “The skills gap” refers to the abundance of open jobs that employers can’t find qualified applicants to fill and the perception that many graduates lack demonstrable skills. Employers want to see applicants with demonstrable, transferable skills.  Accordingly, the focus in higher education has shifted to how to provide students and alumnae with ways to demonstrate what they know or have learned, but also to document what they can do.  SOARS is a documented way for students to demonstrate initiative and professional competencies such as research, written and verbal communication, and critical thinking. Participation in any facet of the symposium shows personal initiative and engagement in learning, also highly sought after attributes.

Implementing SOARS started with a multi-faceted program committee, including Setzekorn and Burton as well as School of General Education Dean Jodene DeKorte, PhD., and Director of the Office for Student Life Maurice Brown.  Over thirty suggestions for topics and multiple volunteers to serve as track chairs and readers have come from faculty across the University. A steering committee came together to handle the logistics of everything from developing a conference website to marketing. The Steering Committee includes members from across the University with experience from other University events and initiatives, including members of the leadership team such as Assistant Academic Chair-Humanities Kate Scarpena, Academic Department Chair – Mathematics Peg Hohensee,  and Assistant Academic Chair – Social Sciences Katie Kirakosian.  Graduate IT Faculty Tamara Fudge, Composition Faculty Eric Holmes, Ellen Manning, PhD., and Teresa Marie Kelly, and  Mathematics Faculty Kirsten Meymaris  brought their own knowledge and skills to take SOARS from concept to reality. Professor of IT-School of Business & Information Technology Carol Edwards-Walcott and KU Research Consultant Suzanne Khalil, PhD., are in charge of the Research Poster Sessions.

Prior to the symposium, SOARS team members will educate and engage students in research methods and theory through a series of webinars hosted in partnership with Kaplan’s Academic Support Center.   Webinar hosts included Brown, Academic Support Center Manager Melody Pickle, PhD, KU Library Director Matt Stevons, and Career Services Director Jennifer Katz. The webinars began on September 16 with sessions by Graduate Human Resources Professors- School of Business and Information Technology Joel D. Olson, Ph.D., and Steven V. Cates, DBA, SPHR, and will continue through SOARS.

SOARS continues to show the power of interdisciplinary collaboration to turn big ideas into realities and to meet challenges.  The symposium certainly benefits its target audience – students and alumnae. SOARS participation signals to employers that participants have initiative and the communication, analysis, and critical thinking skills that are highly prized. Students who don’t present but attend the symposium or pre-symposium webinars gain skills as well as a goal for the future. For the faculty, administrators, and staff organizing SOARS, the high point of the symposium is in the harnessing and sharing of their own vital professional skills with the students for whom these skills are so critical.

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