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How Do I Involve Undergraduates in Research?

Assessment of the URE

Assessment is an essential component of any educational experience and, in the case of the URE, all three major participants should be engaged in assessment -- the faculty hosting the research experience, the home department of the student pursuing the research experience, and the students pursuing research.

As noted earlier, assessment of the URE is important for all members of the local research community so that future UREs can be successful. Examples of the type of questions the three groups of participants should address as part of such an assessment are listed below.

1. Faculty hosting the research experience

Though the application process is aimed at selecting students who will benefit from, and contribute to, the research effort of the host investigator, the level of independence of any one student may vary widely from any other student. Faculty should find a way to determine how ready the student is for being left on their own, e.g., have a series of problems for students which gradually demand more independence of the student while they learn how to function as part of the research group.

This will be quite difficult since the students are at the point where they will frequently “know the correct answer” for common assessment instruments. But faculty should attempt to evaluate their ability at independent inquiry, their ability to communicate effectively, to participate in the community, and to maintain a journal -- before and after the research experience.

Faculty should consult with all participants of the research experience (students, longterm students in the research group, graduate students, other investigators, supportstaff, etc.) to develop a comprehensive understanding of what is working and what isnot working and what can/should be changed.

2. Home department of the students

Of primary importance to the home department are the changes in the students due to their involvement in an URE. Are they more skilled at independent inquiry? Do they work more successfully in groups? Can they communicate their work more effectively? Has their perception of themselves as contributing to the research enterprise changed? Has their interest in physics as a career increased? ... Of course it would be necessary to know the state of the student prior to the URE to evaluate the effect of the experience.

The URE gives an important insight to an undergraduate program. Is there a good balance of courses and laboratory experience? Is there a strong enough emphasis on independent inquiry? Is there appropriate time for collaborative work? Have we done a good job of helping students find the right match for their URE?

Home departments should closely monitor the undergraduate research program. What was asked of the student? How did the program prepare students for their work? What support mechanisms were in place? What kind of access did students have to more senior investigators? Persistent problems should be communicated to the URP faculty. And it may be necessary to steer students away from certain programs with continuing deficiencies.

3. The Undergraduate Researchers

A vital aspect of the URE is how students’ perception of themselves as members of the physics research community is affected. Students must be given the opportunity (and guidance) to reflect on how the experience has (or has not) altered their ability and perspectives.