Showcasing undergraduate research

Dr Sue Ward smiles to the camera

Bringing together Lancaster University undergraduates from across the globe to share and celebrate their research has won Dr Sue Ward and colleagues a Lancaster University staff award.

Sue, an ecologist and teaching development associate at the Lancaster Environment Centre, was part of the team which won an International Impact Award for organising an online international undergraduate research conference during lockdown.

“It was truly a celebration of the variety and quality of student research of global Lancaster... bringing students together in an engaging and meaningful way,” said Simon Allan, the University’s head of Educational Development, who nominated the team.

“Research is so important for our students. Postgraduates get lots of opportunities to present their research. This was a chance for undergraduates to showcase what they’ve done," said Sue.

Sue got involved 18 months ago, when she was asked by Professor Jane Taylor, deputy director of the Lancaster Environment Centre and Director for the Institute for Curriculum Enhancement, to help develop and organise a conference to showcase undergraduate research. The inaugural conference, which just involved students from Lancaster University’s main campus, took place last year, a week before the UK went into lockdown.

“This year we wanted to repeat it but decided we couldn’t risk planning to do it in person because of the pandemic. Then we thought, if it is online, we could invite students from all our campuses – not only here the UK, but from our partners in China, Ghana and Malaysia as well.

Sue and her fellow organisers – Dr Kathryn James from Educational Development, and Sarah Hutchinson from the Global Engagement Team – wanted the conference to be run by students for students, so they recruited 42 student volunteers from partner institutions.

“We trained the students to organise and run conference live sessions and discussions, and to provide technical help to presenters with their online presentations. We were in the background keeping an eye out, organising the platform and offering support.”

Undergraduate students all over the world responded with enthusiasm, with 44 doing online presentations of their research work on subjects ranging from augmented reality to valley glaciers and African feminism.

“They really went to town with the online presentations, including text, pictures, video and audio clips. The conference ran over a whole week. As well as online presentations and discussions, we had live sessions every morning, with student "spotlight on presenters" sessions and seminars. We also had a guest speaker from each partner taking turns to give a tour of their campus, talking about what they do there. It raised massive awareness that we do have different campuses. We hope it will encourage students to do exchanges. 

“It was just so inspiring: we were all really impressed with how the students threw themselves into this new way of doing things online and how keen they were.”

In his nomination, Simon Allan, praised the team’s determination, dedication and passion to deliver the conference during the most challenging circumstances.

“That students have been at the heart of the event’s success, gaining such a high degree of ownership, is outstanding in ordinary times. But to have created such a positive sense of togetherness when everyone involved has had to interact remotely throughout is a quite extraordinary achievement, and one that I hope can be emulated for years to come.

“I can think of few examples that have so effectively embodied and realised the University’s strategic vision for Lancaster to be truly global in outlook, celebrate and make the most of our diversity, engage all of our partnership community, and to infuse research and enquiry so vividly into learning.”

The students themselves were equally enthusiastic.

Shyavindi Bandaranayake, a first year Business Management student from the Leipzig campus in Germany was on the steering group.

“This was a conference for students, by students, something that the organisers highlighted in every steering group meeting. It honestly brought around so many different experiences. For the first time we’ve done something online with all of our partners, and I’ve learnt so much about them. I’ve had such an amazing experience helping to organise such a great event.”

Anna Tillin, a third year Physical Geography student from the main Lancaster Bailrigg campus, was joint winner of the Best Research Presentation Award for a STEM subject, for her presentation on whether wind turbines change the weather. She said: “I never thought that my research and I would make an impact anywhere. This has been really valuable at showing me that actually I can bring something to the world of research.”

Hannah Farquhar, a third-year student studying Physical Activity, Health and Nutrition at Blackpool & the Fylde College, also presented her research, which examined health and wellbeing provision for higher education students in the UK. “It was quite overwhelming. It was the first time I’ve done anything like this, but it’s been really inspiring. There has been some amazing research to read about.”

Sue has recently left Lancaster University after 13 years to give herself more time to travel to Scotland, where she and her husband are renovating an old croft. As well as working part time as a freelance ecological surveyor, she is developing a woodcraft business, Sward Designs.

She is very proud of the online research conference, and hopes it is the first of many.

“I love innovating, and this was one of the best things I could have finished my varied Lancaster Environment Centre career with, it was just so inspiring.”

All the presentations and discussions were recorded and can be found on the Institute for Curriculum Enhancement website.

In the UK, Lancaster University partners with Blackburn College, Furness College, Blackpool & the Fylde College and the University Academy 92 in Manchester. Its overseas teaching partners include Lancaster University Ghana, Lancaster University Leipzig, Sunway University Malaysia and Lancaster University College at Beijing Jiaotong University in China. 

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