A SURE thing: Guided education for the future

August 30, 2021

Mentored by faculty, 25 students completed Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) projects in 2021.

Graphic with half lightbult and half brain in the center surrounded by images of students who participated in the SURE Program over the summer.
SURE Program participants did research over the summer.

The song Oh Happy Day by the Edwin Hawkins Singers became an international hit in 1969, reaching No . 4 on the U.S. Singles Chart, No. 1 in France and Germany, and — 20 years later — transformed parts of Japanese culture. The first Gospel song to hit the secular chart was even featured in movies like Secretariat, BlacKkKlansman and Sister Act 2.

Davian Bennett
Photo of UM-Dearborn student Davian Bennett

UM-Dearborn Junior Davian Bennett remembers hearing the song in his home. But outside of its mainstream presence in pop culture, he didn’t know much about it. That is, until a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience opportunity with English and Humanities Professor Deborah Smith Pollard, a renowned Gospel music scholar, gave the future therapist insight.

“I have a passion for Gospel music, but that song was so overplayed that I didn’t really give the listen, nor time, it truly deserved. But research changes your perspective on everything,” said Bennett, a criminal justice major who plans to attend graduate school for psychology. “During my research, I learned through interviews how that song changed lives. It gave people positive affirmation and inspiration to leave abusive relationships, rethink suicidal thoughts, endure hardships and even break language barriers. It makes people not only happy, but celebrate their accomplishments! If that’s not power through music, I don’t know what is.”

Smith Pollard and Bennett’s project documents the transformative presence and impact of Oh Happy Day — a recording only sold to the choir group’s friends and family in the late 1960s, but went on to sell millions of copies after it was discovered by an underground rock DJ  — on individuals and organizations around the world. And that’s just one of 25 projects completed through campus’ four-month SURE Program.

Other projects, which will be featured on the UM-Dearborn news site on Tuesdays in September, include The Ethics of Vaccination,  Driver Style Transfer for Autonomous Driving, Supply-Base Concentration and Supply Chain Resilience, and more. Students will present their research at the virtual 2021 SURE Showcase at 1 p.m. Sept. 10.

The program, started in 2018 to highlight and support the undergraduate research work happening across campus, transitioned out of the Office of Research and into Experience+ — which promotes a Dearborn Wolverine's academic, personal and professional growth — to emphasize the student focus of the SURE program.

“SURE is a perfect fit for Experience+ because it brings together research, digital literacy and transferable skills such as communication and critical thinking into one package that students can put in their professional toolbox,” said Experience+ Senior Associate Director Laurie Sutch.

Sutch and Linker said the SURE Program provides UM-Dearborn students with expert guidance in the practice of research and it shares potential educational and research-oriented career paths. Faculty projects and students were matched based on interests and skillsets.

“These are faculty with real research needs serving as mentors to create professional development opportunities for our students,” Linker said. “It’s a well thought out experience that pays our students (up to $3200 for the summer) and offers skill building, an expanded network, and the opportunity for getting experience to put on their resume or CV,” Linker said, noting that several students from previous years had their work published in major industry journals.

In addition to faculty-mentored research, students regularly met throughout the summer for workshops covering topics such as responsible conduct in research, using library research resources, graduate school applications and successful presentation techniques. 

“I learned research isn’t sitting in front of your computer for hours at a time. It’s gaining a respect and a deep understanding of a topic through asking questions, listening, looking through history and knowing how to present what you’ve learned so others can benefit,” Bennett said.

There were also student mentoring sessions with guest speakers. Chancellor Domenico Grasso shared his undergraduate research experiences and lessons learned. Associate Professors Natalie Sampson and Carmel Price spoke about how to get a community engaged with a research project. Internship and Career Management Center Director Tuere Wheeler gave insight on the connections between research work and job or educational opportunities. And Associate Professor Will Clarkson, who is a part of an international research team that assembled an extensive map of the Milky Way, spoke about the importance of collaboration and sharing your research in presentations.

The SURE program brings people from across campus together — faculty from all four colleges participated — to keep building upon past SURE achievements and offer a holistic summer research experience.

Bennett called the program “An opportunity of a lifetime.”

“It really was a development process — of both the research project and of myself,” Bennett said. “I want to go to graduate school, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to get there or how to prepare. I had Dr. Pollard, one of the best researchers in her field and a published author, showing me what’s what. I’m better prepared for graduate school. I’m more confident in wanting to be a therapist. And I’m now one of the many people who can say their life has changed because of the song, Oh Happy Day.”

Interview by Sarah Tuxbury.