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New award for original work created

By Nicole Zhao     10/24/12 7:00pm


A new university commencement award, the Distinction in Research & Creative Work, will first be awarded to students in the spring of 2013. 

The distinction will be granted to students who have produced a research, design or creative project that reveals commitment or achievement "above and beyond the norm," according to Associate Dean of Undergraduates Matthew Taylor. 

The commencement award will appear on each awardee's transcript and diploma, according to Taylor. 

"It's in the official record," Taylor said. "For a student who's applying to graduate school, it shows that the university considers it a significant thing. The Rice diploma hasn't changed for decades, so the addition of this award is a big deal."

Taylor said the idea for the award came from Provost George McLendon and Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson, who wanted to recognize and reward student work, as well as encourage more undergraduates to pursue serious projects. 

"There's a sense that a real research, original design experience is a fundamental part of a Rice education," Taylor said. "By and large the university's delivered on that. The award is a way to recognize what we think is important."

Students who do required senior projects, such as senior theses or design projects, do not automatically receive the distinction, but may submit their work for consideration. The distinction is open to all students, including those who have done original work at another university or in partnership with a community organization, Taylor said. 

Taylor said the award would recognize a wide variety of projects, such as music, architecture, visual and performing arts projects, a body of research conducted over the course of several semesters, or a portfolio of creative work. 

"One of the most important things the committee recommended was that whatever group judged the submissions, that they encourage a wide range of projects, not just a thesis, not just a senior design project," Taylor said. "We wanted to acknowledge that our students do all kinds of different things. We wanted students to be able to pursue what they were interested in and not just say, 'Gee, now I need to do a thesis so I can qualify for this award.'"

Departments are responsible for reviewing applications and determining the awardees, though the university has set basic criteria across the schools for the award that include a minimum GPA of 3.3 in Rice courses and good academic standing. 

Students must apply for this award through the department that corresponds most closely with the field in which their original work falls under and include a letter of support from a faculty advisor. 

Each department was charged with releasing a set of criteria specific to the department for the types of projects that will be considered and what would constitute "above and beyond the norm" within their respective discipline. Taylor said he requested departments submit their criteria for this year by Oct. 12, though not all have done so. The deans of schools will review departmental criteria biennially. 

"Frankly, what the math department sees as research distinction would differ quite a lot from what the history department considers research distinction," Faculty Senate Speaker Carl Caldwell said. "As we talked about it, we realized the difference between the departments was so great we really had to be able to define what constitutes distinction." 

Taylor said the university award is different from various departmental research awards in that it considers a broader range of project types. 

"Most of the departmental awards are fairly strict," Taylor said. "For example, most of the social sciences and humanities departments have a thesis award. The [Faculty Senate] endorses the notion that that's too narrow for this. If departments have designed the criteria [for this distinction] liberally enough, you'll see a wider range of students both submitting their work and being recognized." 

Physics and astronomy professor David Alexander said the award would focus more on the quality of original work than on a student's GPA, as the Latin honors, such as summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude, do. Alexander was a member of the working group that made recommendations to the Faculty Senate regarding the distinction. 

"We have a [Latin] honors distinction that's basically focused on GPA, and we felt that our students are represented by a wide range of stuff that they do, and it's not all GPA," Alexander said. "The idea was how we would acknowledge that and encourage it. This is supposed to be broader than the Latin honors." 

Taylor said there has not been a maximum number of awardees set across departments, though some departments have set a percentage target or maximum. 

"[Departments] argued reasonably that some years all the projects are excellent and some years they're not," Taylor said. "I think that's completely reasonable. Obviously, if 80% of our graduating students are getting the award, then we need to recalibrate." 

The application deadline also varies by department, though the working group recommended applications be due no later than the 10th week of the spring semester. 

History professor Carl Caldwell said that since the history department already has an honors program in place that requires a thesis, he does not expect a major change in practice in his department. 

"I expect that most of our students who receive the distinction in research are going to be students in our honors program, [...] but we do have a greater opening for students who are doing extraordinary work," Caldwell said. "Since we have students interested in doing so many different interesting things it makes sense to have more pathways to the major. This should be seen as part of a more general issue of opening up our curriculum to more student initiative." 

Brown College junior Tiffany Trinh said she thought the award was a good idea. 

"It will help to benefit and distinguish students that have worked hard in their field," Trinh said. 

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