Undergraduate Research Award enriches learning for professor and student alike

Award recipients tout the value of complementary perspectives in rural school study

Faculty of Education - 25 September 2023

Dr. Bonnie Stelmach and Jihoon Jang at his convocation in June 2023.

Dr. Bonnie Stelmach and Jihoon Jang at his convocation in June 2023.

One of the best things about an undergraduate research assistantship is that the learning goes both ways, according to a professor and student who collaborated under the auspices of the 2023 Winter Undergraduate Research Award.

The award, which provides funds for an Education faculty member to employ a BEd student as a research assistant, brought together Dr. Bonnie Stelmach (Studies in Educational Leadership) and fourth-year elementary education student Jihoon Jang (now an alumnus) on a pilot study of how elementary students’ curricular learning and life skills development at a rural school is enhanced by an agricultural literacy framework.

Jang, who was born in Seoul and grew up in Vancouver, says one factor initially drew him to the research at New Humble Community School in Calmar, which boasts a barn, a garden and an outdoor classroom.

“It was the animal part,” he says. “I’d never seen a school with live animals on site before.”

But visiting with the students and teachers, conducting interviews and observing community learning in action gave Jang something to think about when he took charge of his own classroom in Vancouver this fall.

“At New Humble, it was literally the entire community that got involved in teaching the children about agriculture. That particular group of students,  I was really impressed by their attitude and vocabulary and work ethic — they really learn to be responsible to live in that community,” he says. 

“That made me want to provide a better learning environment for the kids I will be responsible for. I started to think more about the importance of the learning environment and how I should design my classroom.”

Stelmach says the pilot helped establish a relationship with the students and staff at New Humble that’s important in qualitative research. Having a research assistant with a grounding in elementary education and experience growing up in an urban context also provided benefits.

“It was such a great learning experience for me because Jihoon brought a perspective I couldn’t. I’m a rural person, I went to rural schools, I taught in rural schools. Jihoon was able to see things I would have taken for granted.”

Both professor and student affirm the value of the experience for exposing them to novel educational contexts and expanding their thinking about approaches to teaching, learning and research.

“I think confirming the kind of space where you’re going to do best as a teacher is important, so you can be happy where you are in teaching, but also finding ideas that are transferable between settings,” Stelmach adds.

To learn more about Stelmach and Jang’s research, as well as many other examples of undergraduate-supported research in the Faculty of Education, please attend the Undergraduate Research Award Celebration on Tuesday, Oct. 3 at 4:30 p.m. in Room 122 Education South, featuring poster presentations and remarks from U of A President Bill Flanagan, Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities Marvin Washington, and others.