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Quality Enhancement Plan

Rationale for QEP

"As a leading research university with a distinctive commitment to undergraduate education, Rice University aspires to pathbreaking research, unsurpassed teaching, and contributions to the betterment of our world. It seeks to fulfill this mission by cultivating a diverse community of learning and discovery that produces leaders across the spectrum of human endeavor."  

(Rice University Mission Statement)


Nearly a century ago, a young professor named Edgar Odell Lovett came to Houston for the first time. He was 36 years old; Houston was not even twice his age. It was during this visit that Lovett, the first president of Rice University, initially set eyes on the parcel of land-part swamp, part dusty prairie-on which the university now stands. In 1912, Lovett stood on that same land at the university's opening matriculation, challenging its faculty and first class of students to build a university with "no upper limit," one that would forge a union among the "pleasures of teaching" undergraduates, the "privileges of research," and service for the "welfare of humankind." 8  


No longer on the edge of a town of 80,000, Rice University now sits in the middle of a dynamic city of two million that is a focal point of the world's energy economy and home to the world's largest medical complex, a world-renowned arts community, a vibrant international business community, and an extraordinarily diverse population. As with any big city, Houston is also home to a number of daunting social and environmental problems. In short, Houston offers a host of learning experiences that can play a crucial role in the merging of undergraduate education, research, and public service to which Lovett first committed the University.


It is precisely these Houston-based learning experiences that Rice's current president, David W. Leebron, emphasized during his own recent inauguration as fundamental to his vision of an enhanced partnership between Rice and Houston:


From its inception, Rice has been engaged with Houston, and it is time to fully recommit ourselves to that engagement. We are doing much, but we can do more-we must do more-for the future of Rice is inextricably wound up with this great city. . . .  


[Houston] must form an integral part of the educational opportunity we offer to our students. A portion of our research endeavors must focus on the problems of Houston, from its educational challenges to its environmental problems, and we must play a part in solving those problems. 9  


While President Leebron, true to Rice's mission and institutional ethos, aspires for academic research in the public interest to be an essential part of Rice's engagement with Houston, he also envisions such research as taking place against a backdrop of increased student engagement with the city on multiple levels:


Houston has a great deal more to offer our undergraduates than what they might learn in the classroom or laboratory. Indeed, we want our students to see Houston as perhaps one of the most important learning environments available to them while they are at Rice. Whether it is attending an exhibition in the world-class Museum District that neighbors our campus, participating in a public service internship with a government or nonprofit organization, or hopping on the light rail to enjoy any number of Houston's diverse cultural, culinary, and athletic offerings, Rice students must view this dynamic city as an integral part of their experience on an urban campus. 10  


Rice's QEP, which promotes community-based research in the context of broader student civic engagement, thus realizes both the founding vision and current aspirations of the university's top administration. Just as importantly, the QEP builds on two deeply-rooted institutional values shared at all levels of the university: excellence in undergraduate education and research, and commitment to community involvement. Furthermore, it builds on these in a way that responds to evolving pedagogical research and changing social conditions.


The university's dedication to combining excellence in research with excellence in undergraduate education leads Rice to hire, retain, and reward faculty members who match their scholarly achievements with pedagogical ones. Ninety-six percent of full-time faculty members hold PhDs or terminal degrees in their field, and maintenance of a low faculty-to-student ratio enables Rice to foster close interaction between these researcher-teachers and undergraduates.


Rice faculty members' dual commitment to research and undergraduate education leads many to invite and encourage undergraduates to take part in their research and design efforts. In addition to substantial individual efforts, a number of well-established research programs for Rice undergraduates support this essential aspect of the university's mission. Prominent among these are the Century Scholars Program, Rice Building Workshop, 11 the Rice University School Mathematics Project (RUSMP), 12 and the Consortium in Conservation Biology Zoo Project. 13  


The educational benefits of undergraduate research have recently been the subject of significant scholarly attention and are attested to by Rice students' own experiences. Over the course of the past decade, educators have increasingly agreed that participation in research is a uniquely effective way of teaching undergraduates to think critically, to apply knowledge, and to develop the skills necessary to learn on their own. Most notable was the 1998 report of the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (hereafter The Boyer Report). First among the Boyer Commission's 10 recommendations for improving undergraduate education was that research-based learning become the standard for undergraduates at research universities. 14 More recently (2003), Joyce Kinkead explained the essential foundation of Boyer's recommendation: "[The] undergraduate research experience gets at the heart of [the] skills [of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving] by providing careful guidance by a mentor faculty member into the inquiry methods of a discipline." 15  


Traditionally, "research" has meant any experience in which the student tries to answer an open-ended and ambiguous question, and that requires original thought, critical analysis, and the evaluation of feedback on initial ideas. Accordingly, undergraduate research can take many forms and produce not only lab results or scholarly papers but also musical compositions, works of art, field experiments, or analyses of historical records. 16 At Rice, where engineering and architecture are cornerstones of the university, problem solving has long been connected to research through design experiences based on leading-edge knowledge, and the output of student research and design efforts has been particularly diverse.


Despite this wide range of possibilities, most research and design by undergraduates has been confined to laboratories, libraries, and the Worldwide Web. However, both classic learning theory and recent studies suggest that the benefits of research are enhanced when research and design activities intersect with real-world experience. 17  


For example, learning theorist Jean Piaget posited, including words of Citron and Kline, that learning and cognitive development occur through the "mutual interaction of the process of accommodation of concepts or schemas to experience in the world and the process of assimilation of events and experiences from the world into existing concepts and schemas." 18 In other words, Piaget theorized that learning occurs when people test concepts and theories through their lived experiences and develop new concepts and theories based upon those experiences.


John Dewey, one of the fathers of experiential education, called attention in the 1930s to the "importance of linking knowledge with social inquiry rather than leaving it disconnected from action and isolated and mired in academic culture." 19 If knowledge is to be accessible to solve a new problem, Dewey believed, in the words of Eyler and Giles, "it is best learned in a context where it is used as a problem solving tool." 20  


David Kolb's model of the learning cycle (1984) has been particularly influential among recent practitioners of experiential education. In Kolb's cycle, student learners move from concrete experience to reflective observation, and then on to abstract conceptualization -"in which attempts are made to derive meaning from experience and integrate observations with other sources of knowledge" such as classroom theory and traditional research. Finally, learners "form hypotheses or action strategies that may again be tested" in the real world via active experimentation . 21  


Drawing on the theories of Piaget, Dewey, and Kolb, among others, the promising pedagogy of community-based learning suggests the educational benefits of research multiply when research requires students to collaborate with community partners and knowledge be applied to solve the messy, real-world problems the partners face. 22  


According to the leading study of community-based research (CBR), students taking part in CBR


experience an applied research process-the results of which matter-and they typically participate in most aspects of the study… . And because the students see how the results will be used, they are all the more interested in the work and take care to ensure that their study is done properly and their findings are appropriately tied back to the original research questions.  


The educational enrichment that students acquire goes far beyond those [sic] that are related to designing and conducting research to include a wide range of skills and experiences that broaden the students in often unpredictable ways… Students in a typical collaborative CBR project are usually called on not only to "do research," but to take on a wide variety of tasks that help them develop all kinds of interpersonal skills…  


Skills and knowledge of a more general academic nature are also developed through community-based research: critical analysis, the ability to develop reasoned argument, effective writing for different audiences, [and] organizing and presenting information… Furthermore, students acquire knowledge of matters as diverse as complex organizations, public and private funding, philanthropy and grant writing, social policy, legislative process, politics, interpersonal conflict, and community life. 23  


The literature on CBR and service-learning also suggests that experiential learning is especially valuable when connected to traditional coursework. Indeed, according to Strand (2003), CBR both enhances students' motivation to learn and deepens students' understanding of what they learn in the classroom. CBR achieves the latter because it requires not only that students apply theories and research methods learned in the classroom but also "methods and approaches that are most accessible to community members…" Consequently, "students often get broader and more realistic experience in designing and conducting research than they might in more traditional research courses," as well as develop a more nuanced understanding of the "challenges of constructing knowledge from the perspective of their discipline." 24 Students' motivation to learn is enhanced when they collaborate with community partners because they are "invigorated by [the] accountability and a heightened sense of purpose" that comes with responsibility for not only mastering course material but generating a product that is important to the partner and larger community. 25  


In addition to scholarship and theory, Rice's QEP derives inspiration from the lessons of experiential learning already ongoing at the university. For example, over the past 20 years in particular, a notable spirit of volunteerism has emerged among members of the Rice community; each year hundreds of students, faculty, and staff take part in a range of programs and events organized by the Rice Student Volunteer Program (RSVP) and Community Involvement Center (CIC). 26 The examples of student and institutional commitment cover a range of social issues and involve students in myriad ways. In addition to public service programs, Rice undergraduates are involved with the larger community through undergraduate internships and exchanges with community organizations, businesses, and the Texas Medical Center offered through the Career Services Center, and public performances and exhibits presented by the Rice Players, the Shepherd School of Music, the Rice Media Center, and the Rice University Art Gallery.


The requirement that we think anew about how best to join intellectual inquiry with experiences outside the classroom is informed not only by institutional culture and advances in pedagogical research but also by the rapid pace of social change. Today's global society is a diverse and fast-changing environment that poses challenges unimaginable only a decade ago. To meet these challenges, our students must develop critical thinking skills, the capacity to collaborate with diverse populations, and the ability to respond creatively to ambiguity. They must learn to adapt standard theory to nonstandard settings and acquire a deep understanding of the implications and limitations of that theory. These skills can only be learned from the sort of active engagement with theory that rarely occurs in a traditional classroom setting-the type of engagement research in Houston that is Rice's QEP.


While Rice has been distinguished by the intensity of its academic classroom work, it has not fully bridged the gap between formal, assignment-based education and the informal, experiential learning that happens beyond the perimeter of the campus. By integrating traditional course-work and classroom theory with the enriching experience of community-based research, interaction with community partners, and structured reflection, Rice's QEP is an important step toward closing that gap.


We believe that the relationship between research, design, and Houston's urban problems is synergistic in a positive sense. Together, Rice students, scholars, and community partners have the energy, insight, and intellect to forge innovative solutions to problems old and new. The QEP will spark such collaboration while achieving the goal of enhancing undergraduate students' knowledge, skills, and civic engagement. By enabling undergraduates opportunities to take part in a transformative experience-conducting research or design projects in collaboration with Rice faculty and community partners throughout urban Houston-engagement research in Houston will also contribute to students' development of both the skills and insights that will allow them to become civic-minded and principled leaders in today's global society. With the help of the QEP, many Rice undergraduates will move beyond simply treating the symptoms of social ills, through their admirable commitment to volunteerism and outreach, to taking the lead in proposing the solutions our community needs.




  1. Edgar Odell Lovett, "The Meaning of the New Institution," in Edgar Odell Lovett and the Creation of Rice University, Houston: The Rice Historical Society (2000): 64, 66, 79.
  2. "The Inauguration Address of David W. Leebron," David W. Leebron, October 2, 2004, available at http://www.professor.rice.edu/professor/041002.asp.
  3. "Houston and the World," David W. Leebron, October 2, 2004, available at http://www.professor.rice.edu/professor/041001.asp.
  4. Students design and build low-cost homes in Houston's 3rd Ward for Project Row Houses. Since the program's establishment by the School of Architecture in 1997, 200 students have participated.
  5. Established in 1987 with a grant from the NSF, this program provides a bridge between the Rice mathematics research community and Houston-area math teachers. The chief goal of the Rice University School Mathematics Project is to enhance the mathematical and pedagogical knowledge of Houston K-12 teachers and support them in implementing more effective math programs. Rice students from the Math, Psychology, and Statistics departments work directly with teachers and students as part of a variety of research projects (http://rusmp.rice.edu).
  6. This program provides undergraduates with opportunities to conduct research, in collaboration with a zoo-keeper mentor, on endangered species.
  7. Boyer Report.
  8. Joyce Kinkead, "Learning Through Inquiry: An Overview of Undergraduate Research," and Wendy Katkin, "The Boyer Commission Report and Its Impact on Undergraduate Research," in Joyce Kinkead, ed., Valuing and Supporting Undergraduate Research, 93 (Spring 2003), 5-38. See also http://www.sunysb.edu/reinventioncenter/Conference_04/proceedings.htm for Conference Proceedings from "Integrating Research into Undergraduate Education: The Value Added," November 18-19, 2004, Washington, D.C.; and, Conference Proceedings from "Undergraduate Research and Scholarship and the Mission of the Research University ," November 14-15, 2002, University of Maryland.
  9. J. Kinkead (Spring 2003).
  10. K. Strand, et al. (2003); David Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1984.
  11. J. L. Citron and R. Kline, "From Experience to Experiential Education," International Educator 10, 4 (Fall 2001): 18-26.
  12. K. Strand, et al. (2003): 2 John Dewey, Experience and Education, New York: Collier Books, 1938.
  13. J. Eyler and D. Giles (1999): 64.
  14. Quotations are taken from J. Eyler and D. Giles (1999): 194-195. See also D. Kolb (1984).
  15. K. Strand, et al. (2003); Jacoby and Associates (2003); Eyler and Giles (1999).
  16. Strand, et al. (2003): 124-125.
  17. Strand, et al. (2003): 124-125.
  18. Ibid. See also E. Pascarella and P.T. Terenzini (2005).
  19. See http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~rsvp/ and http://www.ruf.rice.edu/service/ for more information on the RSVP and CIC programs.