What is undergraduate research?
Why should a faculty member become a mentor to an undergraduate researcher?
What are the ways that undergraduates can become involved in research?
Who can serve as a research mentor?
Are there students who should not do undergraduate research?
When should an undergraduate become involved in research?
How should the content of work assignments be developed for a student research assistant?
Is there any advice on how to “manage” undergraduates in research?
The Council on Undergraduate Research, a national organization, defines undergraduate research as “any inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original, intellectual, or creative contribution to the discipline.” This sets a high mark for success. Undergraduates may not attain this goal, but they and their faculty mentors work together in a process that improves the student’s learning and contributes significantly to new understandings of important issues in the disciplines.
The reason for any program or activity in undergraduate research is to improve and enrich the student’s learning. Student’s research should encourage their intellectual development, foster their understanding of how their chosen discipline works, and strengthen their ability to think through problems. It is important to start with small steps, making expectations clear to students. But, the goal is a big one: to change a student’s relationship to his or her chosen field of study, to develop intellectual and personal traits that will contribute to making the student a better scholar today and a better professional and citizen tomorrow. The relationship that a faculty member develops with the student can be one of the most important experiences of the young person’s life.
Research opportunities are pervasive in the curriculum and also are available through special programs. Here is a list of research entry points.
- Regular courses with substantial research requirements: The most common way for students to start their undergraduate research is through courses. Research is part of the content of many courses offered in the different majors of the College of Arts and Sciences.
- Independent study courses: It is also possible for a student to register for an independent study course in a particular discipline and to do research with the faculty member who is responsible for that course. This is the best vehicle for a student who has an interest, shares that interest with a faculty member and finds that they would enjoy working together on the topic. If a department does not have an independent study number, the faculty member can use the GS 399 or 499 course numbers.
- Departmental Honors Programs: Several A&S majors offer honors programs for students pursuing those majors. These honors programs are available to students whether or not they are members of the University-wide Honors College. Almost all of the departmental honors programs have a research and thesis requirement. The majors with honors programs are biology, chemistry, English, geology, history, philosophy, physics, and psychology.
- Research contracts: Faculty whose research is supported by grants from funding agencies outside the University often involve students in research and are able to pay the students stipends.
- Special programs, especially those offered during the summer months, are good ways to start an involvement in research. These summer programs afford the opportunity to get a quick start on research. The College will begin a campus-wide summer program in undergraduate research during summer 2011 to 2012. There is another special program, not necessarily a summer activity, for new faculty who are interested in working with undergraduates on research.
- Opportunities outside the College: Students may also look for research opportunities outside the College. For example, a pre-medical student may wish to assist in the research that is being conducted by a faculty member in the College of Community Health Sciences.
- Work-Study Employment: Students who qualify for the University’s work-study program may apply for an undergraduate research assistant as their work-study position.
Because one of the purposes of undergraduate research is to develop faculty-student collaborations, the research mentor is a tenured or tenure-earning faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences or a professional research scholar attached to one of the University’s research centers. The College offers a special opportunity for new faculty to become involved in mentoring an undergraduate in research projects. Students in this College may also work with faculty in other colleges, especially with those affiliated in one of the University’s research centers.
All students in the College of Arts and Sciences are eligible to do undergraduate research. There are categories of students who are not well-represented in undergraduate research nationally and those are first-generations students and transfer students. When possible, those students should be encouraged to become involved. Students who are doing exceedingly well academically are those who are most likely to be involved and that is understandable. There are students whose academic standing is such that they should not add on other responsibilities. But, special efforts are desirable to identify students who are very capable but who may not be as engaged as desired. For these, undergraduate research is a potential path to a more passionate involvement with learning.
The sophomore or early in the junior year is the optimum time to become involved in research. Why? Undergraduate research takes time and builds on coursework and experiences at the University. It is desirable to view it as at least a two year project during which the student decides on an area of research, connects with a faculty mentor, and moves through several steps in the research process. Transfer students who enroll at the beginning of their junior year are encouraged to seek help immediately if they wish to be involved in research.
The semester framework is one that faculty and students are familiar with, but it is not the best time frame for research. This is an activity that works best with a longer horizon. For example, the psychology honors program expects students to accomplish a significant independent research project and provides four semesters for the accomplishment of this activity. Given the value of curriculum-based research experiences, it is very useful for student and the research mentor to develop an academic plan that combines courses and special experiences as the way of accomplishing research over more than one semester.
The general response here is that work assignments need to reflect the preparation and experience of the student. Students going into their sophomore or junior years bring enthusiasm and fresh perspectives but lack experience and extensive exposure to advanced courses. Assignments should be limited in scope and complexity for less advanced students and increased in complexity and expectations for independent work as the student becomes a more experienced researcher.
To this question as to others concerning undergraduate education, the easy response is that undergraduates are unique and one size does not fit all. But, the following suggestions are gleaned from the websites of numerous universities with large undergraduate research programs and offered as suggestions.
The expectations that a faculty mentor has for a student research assistant need to be clearly communicated to the student. The expectations can include a schedule of meeting times over the semester, the number of hours the mentor expects the student to spend on the research project, deadlines for the accomplishment of the project, how student research reports will be formatted, and expectations for presentation of research findings.
Undergraduate research assistants should be oriented to the project on which they will work. The AS Office of Undergraduate Research will orient students to the research endeavor in general through workshops on topics such as the responsible conduct of research, library databases in different disciplines, exposure to some research data packages like SPSS, and formulating research abstracts. But it is important that the mentor orient the undergraduate research assistant to specific research project. What is the big picture? What methodologies are employed? Is there specific equipment that the student must learn to use? Are there safety issues that must be observed? Are there ethical and privacy issues that must be honored?
Another suggestion is that, if a faculty member has more than one student involved in research, it is good to provide opportunities for students to discuss their research with other students. This is an especially good opportunity for faculty and students who are affiliated with one of the University’s research centers. Discussions involving students who have different disciplinary interests but are working on similar issues in a center can show students the value of multi-disciplinary perspectives on complex issues.