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Undergrad Research Experiences Can Deliver 'Value-Add' in STEM

Undergraduate research experiences are undergoing a surge of popularity among institutions. What used to be summertime internships working with a given faculty member on his or her own research have blossomed into course-based activities, work outside of academia and practices that emphasize collaboration and teamwork and involve questions that are significant and relevant to the participants.

A new National Academies Press book examines the successes, challenges and opportunities for undergraduate research experiences, specifically for STEM students. According to the researchers, STEM research projects for undergraduates share characteristics, although approaches vary from one to the next:

  • They focus on generating "novel information with an emphasis on discovery and innovation" or they attempt to replicate "recent preliminary results";
  • The scale of the problems tends to be "significant" and "relevant" to STEM researchers and — in some cases — a broader community;
  • The work almost always incorporates collaboration and teamwork;
  • Iterative refinement of experimental design, questions or data is involved;
  • The projects allow students to master specific research techniques;
  • They're intended to help students engage in reflection about the problems being investigated and the work being undertaken to address those problems;
  • Communication of results through publication or presentation is expected; and
  • They're structured and guided by a mentor, but students take on "increasing ownership" of parts of the project as time passes.

A review of the research on undergraduate research experiences found "evidence" of a causal relationship between students' participation and their subsequent persistence in STEM, particularly among underrepresented groups. Here, however, the authors of the book suggested that additional studies are needed.

The report also noted that the people in charge of designing these experiences tend to go at it without training or reference to existing research about what works. Likewise, evaluations related to the activities may be done for program providers or funders but are rarely shared with others, which means the "accumulated experience of program providers" rarely gets into the hands of those who could use the insights to improve the design of their experiences for students.

Another point in the report: "The quality of mentoring can make a substantial difference in a student's experiences with research." Yet, most faculty or other potential mentors don't have access to professional development in how to be a good mentor.

The authors offered a number of recommendations, including:

  • Designers of undergraduate research experiences should base their design decisions on sound evidence and in consultation with education and social science researchers;
  • Institutions should collect data on student participation in the research projects to inform their planning and to look for opportunities to improve quality and access; and
  • Schools should make sure that those mentoring undergraduates in their research work have access to professional development to help them get better at that role.

Undergraduate research experiences "can add an important dimension to undergraduate STEM education, in particular providing students with an opportunity to test and reaffirm their interest in a STEM career," wrote James Gentile, chair of the Committee on Strengthening Research Experiences for Undergraduate STEM Students and emeritus dean for natural and applied sciences at Hope College in Michigan, in his preface. The report, he added, "provides unique and informed insight into the 'educational value-added' that accrues to students engaged in undergraduate research, either through a faculty-mentored research experience in a laboratory or in the field, through active engagement in research that was embedded within a course [or both]."

The book is available in pre-order as a paperback for $40 or as a free PDF download on the NAP website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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