Undergraduate Research: an Introduction

In anticipation of our next Provisions session on TuesdaySeptember 17th, here is a little background on the topic of undergraduate research.

The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.”  The CUR and its affiliated colleges, universities, and individuals share a focus on providing undergraduate research opportunities for faculty and students at all institutions serving undergraduate students, as they believe that faculty members enhance their teaching and contribution to society by remaining active in research and by involving undergraduates in research.  

In “What Good Is Undergraduate Research, Anyway?,” Lila Guterman discusses the results of studies done to systematically study the effects of undergraduate research on students, which both verified some widely held notions about undergraduate research as well as challenged other assumptions.  Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks of undergraduate research that she relates throughout her article:

Benefits:

  • Undergraduates learn and grow significantly from their research experiences.
  • There are cognitive and personal benefits for students, including gaining self-confidence.
  • Students learn how to handle uncertainty and how to work on problems without clear solutions.
  • Francis R. Blase, an associate professor of chemistry at Haverford, cites the personal rewards of working in the lab with her students. “I have so much fun with them,” she says. “They’re young, they’re fun, they’re enthusiastic, they have good ideas.”

Drawbacks

  • Students require a strong mentor relationship to reap the benefits of undergraduate research, which is a time commitment that may cost faculty members more than they gain from the additional lab help.
  • “It’s a huge time investment,” says Mr. Plante, of Penn. “You do have to do a lot of hand-holding.”
  • Robert S. Manning, an associate professor of mathematics at Haverford, admits, “It’s pretty rare that an undergraduate project would create a paper that wasn’t already under way.”
  • In many interviews, faculty members mentioned the costs of doing research with undergraduates twice as often as the benefits.
  • Colleges don’t always do a good job of compensating faculty members for their efforts.  “Institutions see student labor help as a reward enough,” but “faculty honestly state they could get their research done a lot faster if they weren’t working with a student.”
  • Are the positive results of undergraduate research biased? Students who do research tend to already be among the strongest students: “Are we picking winners or are we creating winners?” Mr. Bruns, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, asks. “I don’t know.”

In “Undergraduate Research: Showcasing Young Scholars,” David Chapman talks about the purpose and meaning of undergraduate research, noting that it would be a mistake to think of undergraduate research only as graduate research on a smaller scale.

If undergraduate research is not the same thing as graduate research, Chapman asks what is it, and why should a university support it?  The selling point for Chapman is in the reversal of the skepticism he sees in students in regards to the importance of higher education that many undergraduates come to college with, where “they know they want a degree, but they are not sure they want an education.”

Chapman writes that what is refreshing about the end result is observing the undergraduates who came “caring only about fast cars and pop music,” and are now suddenly beginning to see how different disciplines relate to each other, how “the past can teach us something about the future;” in other words, he writes, “they grow more like us.”

Chapman uses the analogy of collegiate athletics, where coaches argue that participation in collegiate athletics builds teamwork and character, a permanent contribution to students’ lives, and says that in the same way, undergraduate research is excellent preparation for any career.

In addition, Chapman argues that undergraduate projects are a way for departments to evaluate themselves and is a way of celebrating what is valued most in academe, the “accomplishments of our students and the efforts of everyone who has helped them along the way.”

He believes that given the value of undergraduate research for not only students, but faculty members and the university as a whole, “it is regrettable that only a fraction of American college students have the opportunity to engage in extended research projects.”

In “How to Find Students’ Inner Geek,” Marc Zimmer states that by the time students reach college, they have matured and no longer “jump up and down so that they can be the first to ask the teacher their questions.”  Zimmer, focused specifically on undergraduate research in the field of science, believes that to reach the scientist within those students who don’t seem to “hunger for science,” undergraduate research can be used as “extra-super-duper bait.”  The struggle, as Zimmer sees it, is that undergraduate research has to be made attractive to “teenagers who often have completely different social, cultural, and scientific backgrounds.”

In Zimmer’s mind, undergraduate research often is most successful in small, liberal-arts colleges where research experiences are more personalized and class sizes are smaller.  Zimmer notes that research has shown that it takes “one and a half to two years to establish a mentoring relationship in a university setting,” but in his experience, “the liberal-arts setting, and especially a one-on-one research relationship, speeds up that process and is very effective at breaking down barriers between professors and students.”

In order to “hook” students early and keep them interested in doing research, Zimmer offers up some helpful hints that have been successful for him:

  • I have changed how I think and talk about my research, especially when I am trying to lure undergraduates into it.
  • Students need role models. I often brag about “fish” (students) I have caught in the past, and whenever possible I bring those students to class so my current students can see what opportunities are available to them, and what they can accomplish.
  • The first exposure to scientific research can be intimidating. I try to make the lab a friendly place, and I spend a lot of one-on-one time with my research students, not all of it in the lab.
  • Professional meetings are an important part of the research training of our students, so I have gone out of my way to find funds to send my students to chemistry conferences.

Don’t forget to join us on Tuesday, September 17th at 12:00pm in Standish A/B to hear from Rick Thompson, Dean of the School of Math & Sciences, David Morrow, Associate Professor of English, and Brian Jensen, Associate Professor, the Department of Physical and Biological Sciences, on the topic of Teaching Undergraduate Research.

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