How my undergrad research is making a difference

Savannah Sander is a senior study psychology with a minor in French. She enjoys swimming and hanging out with her dog, Juice.

Savannah SanderI am currently working with Tricia Thrasher (a PhD candidate in French) to study how virtual reality technology can be integrated in second language learning classrooms to reduce foreign language anxiety. I was looking for ways to get more involved on campus, so my junior year I applied to the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP). I had been a participant in Tricia’s research my sophomore year, so when I ran across her profile on the application, I decided to apply. I enjoyed working with her so much that after our one semester through the program ended, I continued for two more semesters.

Through our research, we have studied and coded student’s interactions in a 200-level French class in three learning environments: Zoom, the virtual reality (VR) platform "vTime XR," and an in-person classroom. We had students fill out questionnaires after being in each environment to assess their anxiety levels. At the end of the semester, we conducted one-on-one interviews where they discussed their experiences.

Our results showed that students generally demonstrated more complex language skills and reported lower levels of anxiety in the VR environment. This showed promising benefits of VR in foreign language classrooms and spoke to the changing future of education.

The experience and confidence that my time in research has given me has been extremely influential on my professional development. This past year I was able to present my work at the Midwest Association for Language Learning Technology Conference (MWALLT) and UIUC’s Undergraduate Research Symposium. I also received funding from the James Scholar Preble Research Program and the Spring 2022 Conference Travel Grant. I have gained writing and presentational skills, have increased my knowledge on virtual reality technology, and overall, I attained a much better understanding and appreciation for the research process. I cannot put into words just how rewarding this experience has been and how much my success in this program has inspired my applications to other competitive programs and scholarships!

In addition to gaining valuable professional and academic experience, I gained a mentorship relationship with Tricia that has aided me beyond our research work. She has helped me with countless applications, including my papers for graduate school, and I have truly appreciated all her guidance and help as I prepared for graduation.

This whole experience began because I mistakenly believed I had to do research to get into my chosen graduate program. But I am forever thankful that that mistake led to my application because I never would have developed the skills or the relationship with Tricia that I have now if I didn't apply! As I move on to graduate school, the biggest lesson this experience has taught me is to put yourself in a place where things can happen to you. Apply for the programs and do all the things! I learned that I am capable of so much more and that is a gift that I will carry with me for life.

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Savannah Sander