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URGiS makes undergraduate research sexy

Sunday, September 21, 2008

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Written by Reilly Scott

Many of us know all too well the various pressures and requirements associated with being accepted into grad school. It is safe to say that acquiring research experience during our years as Undergraduate students is one of them as it is extremely valuable in regards to grad school applications. The University’s administration has highly encouraged research participation for Undergraduate students saying that “academic departments and schools should continue their efforts to de-emphasize rote learning and memorization in favour of genuine research challenges for Undergraduate students, even in the earliest years,” and that “the success of problem based learning in such settings demonstrate that success is not only possible, but that making the transition to actual research-based learning can stimulate further innovation” (2005 Provost Whitepaper). However, securing a research assistant position can be a very challenging, intimidating and competitive process with such a large number of applicants on campus. This is why volunteer projects can be so useful to Undergraduate students as they allow space for learning as well as on campus involvement in an environment that is far less competitive. It was with these ideas in mind that Dr. Robin Milhausen created the Undergraduate Research Group in Sexuality (URGiS).

As a very personable, encouraging and student-involved professor, Dr. Milhausen was interested in engaging her students in projects that stepped outside the boundaries of in-class learning. These ideas, combined with the overall interest of the Undergraduate Student body in sexuality research, she formed URGiS. The group was initially comprised of seventeen Undergraduate students from various departments including Sociology, Psychology, Biology, Fine Arts and Family Studies. "My purpose, when creating URGiS was to get undergraduates involved in meaningful tasks in research, and to spark an interest in sexuality research" says Milhausen. "I wanted students to see how research findings are created, from the very beginning stages of creating research questions, making hypotheses, designing methodology, recruiting participants, analyzing results, and then disseminating findings".

What made, and has continued to make, URGiS unique is that it is an entirely student-driven process. Through topic choice, literature review, design, analysis and dissemination, the student volunteers of URGiS are the main influence of the group’s studies under Dr. Milhausen’s supervision. This is important as it distinguishes URGiS from Undergraduate thesis research as well as the faculty research that is often assisted by students.

URGiS is an entirely voluntary group that allows students to engage in as much or as little activity as they choose. The group is organized hierarchically - leaders are responsible for much of the work and the larger time commitments, core members are less involved, but still contribute significantly to tasks, and support members come to meetings and offer help when they can. The majority of URGiS members have become involved through their studies with Dr. Milhausen. Throughout the year students typically meet once a week and time commitments range from 1-10+ hours a week depending on how involved the student is.

In an interview, URGiS leader John Sakaluk shared interesting information regarding the group’s research methods as well as the outcome of some of the group’s research projects.

The first URGiS study (2007) examined the effects of gender and social desirability on romantic partner choice. “In the study, students were randomly assigned to three conditions that manipulated social desirability and asked to rate characteristics in terms of their importance in a casual sex, short-term dating, long-term dating and marital partner context” says Sakaluk. “The group had students filling out surveys, students filling out surveys and going over their answers with one of the survey administrators, and students filling out surveys hooked up to a fake lie detector test. The beauty of these tests was that the students were not aware that the lie detector was not real. This way, URGiS could be sure that the answers that they were giving were true”. Students were recruited for the study in residence halls with incentives ranging from pizza and pop, to Visa gift cards, and a floor dinner for the residence hall floor with the highest percentage of participation.

The results of the study were extremely interesting. The group found that casual dating, long-term dating and future spouse contexts followed a very similar pattern for desirable characteristic preferences. Intelligence and warmth were rated as the most important characteristics, and were found to be more important to women than to men. Attractiveness was the next most important characteristic and was found to be more important to men than women. However, what was particularly interesting was that men and women in the fake lie detector condition rated many characteristics as equally important, including attractiveness, status/popularity, and domestic abilities.

This year, URGiS changed their approach using a qualitative research method by examining the current sexual scripts of Canadian University students in focus groups. “Sexual scripts are the ‘guiding rules’ that people follow, or feel they are expected to follow, for sexual behaviour” says Sakaluk. “Some examples of this are men feeling like they have to initiate sex, women controlling the sexual process, the expectation that men are sexually skilled/educated and women being judged for appearing to be sexual". URGiS recruited students from all across U of G campus to participate in two-hour group interviews about these rules. Students were given pizza and pop during the focus groups, and at each group’s conclusion, the students entered their names into a draw for $100.00. URGiS members then transcribed the interviews and then analyzed the information to determine current sexual scripts.


“Our groups’ studies are a really rewarding process for students and staff members. It serves as very valuable experiential learning experience” says Sakaluk, “a lot of these things we wouldn’t be able to learn in the classroom”. Sakaluk stresses the overall enthusiasm of URGiS’ group members claiming that many URGiS members are more passionate about the group’s work than they are about their classes. This goes to show how effective volunteer research study can be in terms of harnessing student interests and work ethic. However, this is not something that is just specific to the realm of sexuality research. Many subject topics could benefit from volunteer student initiative groups, such as URGiS, as they help to divulge useful information while also giving students and faculty extremely valuable involvement and learning opportunities. "I really want to stimulate a love of research in the students I work with" says Dr. Milhausen. "By participating actively in the research process, students learn how knowledge is constructed. They learn that they can take a question, or a curiosity, and develop a study to gain further insight or understanding".
Certainly, in these ways, URGiS has been a positive experience for its volunteers: “URGiS has defined my undergraduate experience and given purpose to me being at the university of Guelph; I simply wouldn’t be able to find such an amazing opportunity anywhere else than at the University of Guelph with Dr. Robin Milhausen,”(Sakaluk).

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