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How Do I Involve Undergraduates in Research?

Suggested Practices Questions on Assessment

Increasingly faculty are being asked to open their research to include undergraduates. Yet many faculty, both new and senior, still struggle with this process.

And faculty, particularly new faculty, must keep an eye on being productive researchers. There are many reasons to include undergraduates in research. But efficiency is not usually one of these reasons.

But once a commitment is made to include undergraduates, how do we meet the challenges?

Many faculty have an initial difficulty in parsing research questions to the right size and challenge for undergraduates. Undergraduates lack the background, freedom of time constraints, and maturity in the discipline of graduate students. In this situation thinking in terms of a lab group may be more effective than focusing too closely on the student.

With 2 or 3 undergraduate students, faculty may be able to more effectively assign a set of research questions to the lab group which are more ambitious than could be possible for any one student. It is important that the individual student have a question that challenges them but also one that allows them to take ownership of the inquiry ... a question that ties in to a larger effort.

A lab group is also useful in providing the opportunity for peer learning and support.

A good practice (see below for more discussion) is to develop this lab group for both horizontal and vertical mentoring. Remember the adage that “It take a village to raise a physicists.”

Faculty can also attend meetings of AAPT and APS where there are frequently sessions devoted to undergraduate student research to see what projects are being pursued by undergraduates.

Several useful resources are

How to Get Started in Research
Thomas Goodwin (Hendrix College), Bert Holmes (Lyon College), and K. Elaine Hoagland
(1999), 2nd edition CUR

This publication provides information on beginning a research program and finding support for the program from administrators and funding agencies. Other topics include writing grant proposals and hosting poster sessions. Some of the information is a bit dated but a good way to start.

How to Involve Undergraduates in Research
Edward Neuenschwander, SPS

This guide is out of print and no longer available. But an excellent discussion if you can find it in the department.

An article where students outline what they find valuable in an undergraduate research mentor is

Five Effective Strategies for Mentoring Undergraduate: Students Perspectives
Mario Pita, Christopher Ramirez, Nathanaelle Joacin, Sarah Prentice and Christy Clarke
CUR Quarterly
Spring 2013, V. 33, Number 3, pp. 11-15

The Council on Undergraduate Research (http://www.cur.org) is a valuable resource. Check also their How-to series (http://www.cur.org/publications/how_to_series/).

The following manuals were designed to mentor graduate students but there is excellent advice for mentors for undergraduates as well.

Physics Research Mentor Training Seminar

Entering Mentoring: A seminar to Train a New Generation of Scientists