As students return from the winter break to begin new classes, a large population of students will be returning to their undergraduate thesis or seeking a thesis supervisor for the following year. The undergraduate thesis is a characteristic, and sometimes required, component of many four-year honours degree programs. Regardless of program, senior theses are designed to allow upper-year students to hone their research skills and prepare them for graduate studies.
I am completing my undergraduate thesis in an analytical chemistry lab alongside five other undergraduate students. While our projects vary in nature, the expectations of our thesis in terms of time commitment and research goals are essentially the same. However, the assessments for my thesis as an integrated science student differs from that of the chemistry students in the lab, which differ even from the chemical biology students — despite being in the same department of chemistry and chemical biology.
For example, the thesis report for students in the chemistry program is worth 40 per cent of their final grade whereas the same document for students in the chemical biology program is worth only 25 per cent. Besides the differences in weighting for the same assessment, students in chemical biology are required to complete different assessments like project outlines and interim reports while chemistry students must only complete their report and final presentation.
While all senior theses conducted by students in the department of chemistry and chemical biology are worth nine units, senior theses that conduct arguably similar work from students in the department of biochemistry can be worth up to 15 units. This becomes especially alarming when students from departments outside of biochemistry complete their thesis in a biochemistry lab and receive less units than their biochemistry student counterparts.
It makes little sense to have students that are under the same expectations and striving towards similar research goals receiving different academic credit.
Rather than the assessment for senior theses dictated by the program to which these students belong, assessments should be decided by the supervisor. This will not only ensure that students completing virtually the same work are assessed equally, it will provide supervisors more control over the research conducted under their supervision and allow them to create assessments that better reflect students’ achievements.
Additionally, as all senior theses share the same goal to improve students’ research capabilities, and considering students, for the most part, can conduct their thesis under the supervision of a supervisor outside of their program’s department, there is no real need for program-specific thesis courses. If the fear is that students within the same program will not develop the same transferable skills or be graded equally, the faculty rather than the program can mandate that all senior theses must include specific components and the same time commitments.
It may also be useful to consider implanting a mandatory seminar session for undergraduate thesis students to attend. The integrated science program already has such a seminar in place, where thesis students within the program are required to present updates on their research and peer-review literature reports and other related assessments.
If seminars like these were to be implemented faculty-wide, the typical undergraduate senior thesis could be restructured so that it is in total worth a standard number of units where the large per cent of a student’s grade is determined by their supervisor, and a certain smaller per cent is devoted to seminar assessments.
No matter what action is taken, it is clear that the current structure of undergraduate senior theses does not create fair opportunities for all students involved and requires serious restructuring.
Senior News Editor
One of McMaster’s relatively new graduate programs, the Masters in Global Health, will be taking a trip to India’s Manipal University in April as part of a two-week symposium in collaboration with a Manipal University and Maastricht University in the Netherlands .
During the event, which has the theme “Bridging Different Worlds,” students will also be working on various development projects, “ranging from assessing safe drinking water in urban slums, to examining causes of infant mortality at Karkala Hospital,” said Stena Sothiratnam, a student in the Masters in Global Health program who will be going on the trip.
“It is basically a practical placement in the field during which we will be participating in research data collection for research studies that are currently in progress or will be starting at that point,” said Ryhana Dawood and Natahsa McNamara, members of the Fundraising Committee for the project, in an email.
A project in a developing nation such as India would be a valuable experience for students in this program, as many intend to apply their expertise from their program outside of Canada, noted Dawood and McNamara, who further explained that the purpose of the program “is to get students better acquainted with development work, and what exactly that entails.”
With a focus on health care, the 28 students, including nine exchange students from the Netherlands, will be engaging in projects dealing with health care systems in other countries.
This is the second year the program is running and hosting a trip of this sort.
To fund the trip, a self-defense/fitness seminar will be held on campus for a nominal fee, and depending on demand, more than one such seminar will be held. Methods to engage the residence students in the fundraising efforts are under consideration as well.
With McMaster’s renewed commitment to the revitalization of the undergraduate learning experience, an endeavour of this nature is certainly a positive step in improving the educational experience. “There is only so much that can be learned from flipping through the pages of a textbook,” said Sothiratnam.
“We hope to gain a lot from this experience and we personally feel a service-learning component is beneficial to all learning environments,” said Dawood and McNamara.