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How Do I Involve Undergraduates in Research?

Suggested Practices for Constructing a Research Experience for Undergraduates

Begin from the perspective that the research experience is an educational experience for the undergraduate. This perspective will help automatically impose certain expectations and paradigms (goals, support structures, assessment protocols, etc.) early in the design of the research experience. As an example, the paper/poster students prepare becomes an assessment of how well students have learned to communicate their research efforts. But currently the poster is frequently seen as the goal of their research experience.

Be clear (both in your own mind and in conversation with the students) what you expect students to be able to do at the end of the research experience. Not in terms of the research question but in terms of the research process. Much like art, research is often the victim of not being able to be described but only being recognized when seen. But we must take the responsibility for clarifying the goals and expectations of the research experience for undergraduates. This is usually much more than being able to generate a line of critical inquiry, we also expect students to become integrated into, and participate effectively in, a community of scholars and to be able to communicate their work effectively via the written word, oral presentation, and mathematical summation. We should also communicate to the students our expectations of the goals of their undergraduate research experience in terms of both the project and also the skills, abilities, values, and perspectives tied to being members of the research community.

Open the research experience to make it as inclusive as possible. Too often we tend to focus only on the students who excel in course work as being the ones we groom for research experience. But research demands different abilities than are normally expected in the undergraduate curriculum. A willingness to assume ownership of a part of an experiment; an ability to ask new questions and critically assess the answers; the determination to pursue elusive clues over hours, days, weeks; being able to function effectively as a member of a group; the subtle knack of “good hands”; are all abilities called into play by the research effort and are not always measured in a course grade. And there is good evidence to suggest that students who are marginal in course work become more engaged, motivated, and able in the research environment. So look beyond the top 10% of the class and make particular efforts to make contact with those students who may excel in the research experience but may not have the expected profile. In particular, look among applications from small colleges, minority-serving institutions, and two-year colleges.

Introduce students to not just research but to the community of research. This actually has two aspects. In the research group, undergraduate students should be incorporated into the research group as participants. Under ideal circumstances, students will work with other students who are only slightly more experienced in the research effort, graduate students, and senior investigators all involved in a communal investigation. But in addition, the students should be introduced to other research and programs of the host institution to gain a better perspective of the kinds of research activity possible. Communal activities with other research students is also encouraged. Many of are used to thinking that focused effort on a single topic over months is a normal mode of pursuing research and are naturally concerned about time away from research during the short summer time we have the research students. However, most undergraduates are still unused to any effort lasting more than a few days and so having release time for research talks in other fields, communal activities, down time ... is an appropriate investment.

Assess the capability of the incoming student to pursue independent inquiry. 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. 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.

Structure the research experience so that students take responsibility for generating, modifying, and evaluating their own line of inquiry within the research group effort. Though there is some benefit in assigning students to the drudge work associated with unskilled labor, the goal of the research experience for undergraduates is more appropriately to challenge them to become more adept at the kind of reflective inquiry characteristic of research. Even if the line of inquiry being pursued by the student is a small one, being responsible for its development is essential. Though students will usually need to pursue their inquiry with the guidance of more senior students or the primary investigators they should be allowed to assume as much responsibility for the generation, development, and modification of the inquiry as is possible. Note the inclusion of modifying the inquiry. It is important that the students recognize that research often entails getting answers that tell us we are asking the wrong questions, and that the correct way to pursue a line of inquiry is sometimes to start over. In addition, getting students to reflect on the implications of answers is valuable and necessary perspective.

Expect, and incorporate, communication of the project and results as part of the research experience. Students should be required to not simply take data and generate results but should be able to present their project, the results and the implications of those results in a paper and as a talk, and to appropriately incorporate mathematical summaries in both written and oral presentations. Normally, a paper would not be sufficient but expect to engage students in a protracted series of rewrites as if the paper is being held to publishable quality. And students should have the opportunity of receiving feedback for their oral presentation. In addition, most students would benefit from guidance in maintaining lab journals.

As much as possible students should be assigned appropriate additional responsibility within the research group. An example would be to allow students to give lab tours, preparing background reading, maintaining the lab, … as well as their own research inquiry.

Support the students as needed. This of course includes advice on research but also guidance and feedback on wring, speaking, utilizing the library/internet resources, etc. Much of this can be accessed through other research students and investigators but there may be need for school staff for other aspects of the research experience, particularly for those students on their first prolong “away from school” experience.

Maintain communication with undergraduate research students after the research experience. Keep track of their career path and try to determine the effect of their undergraduate research experience. Invite students to maintain continuing interest in their research projects and former colleagues and to interact with newer students.

Assess before, during and after the research experience. 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 attempt to evaluate their ability at independent inquiry, their ability to communicate effectively, to participate in the community, and to maintain a journal -- before, during, and after the research experience.

Reflect on the end of experience evaluations to modify or change the research experience. Consult with all participants of the research experience (students, long term students in the research group, graduate students, other investigators, support staff, etc.) to develop a comprehensive understanding of what is working and what is not working and what can/should be changed.

Juan R. Burciaga (essay written at)
NSF REU Site Directors Workshop On Diversity
American Center for Physics, June 2008