Promoting and Encouraging Undergraduate Research
In June, I provided an overview of undergraduate research, including how providing research opportunities for undergrads benefits the institution, faculty, and, of course, the students themselves. In this article, I address the challenges of undergraduate research and offer suggestions and techniques on how to best promote and encourage it.
Undergraduate research challenges
Since the concept of undergraduate research is still fairly new, the awareness it needs for funding and support is in short supply. While many schools encourage students to work on their own when it comes to research, it is doubtful whether these undergraduates truly understand the concept of research, let how to go about it. Consequently, students interested in doing undergraduate research are left with just one primary option: collaborating with a faculty member. This in turn has its own challenges, due to time and availability limitations on the part of professors and instructors.
Currently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of the larger organizations that provides some funding and support for undergraduate research. The NSF funds numerous research opportunities for undergraduate students through its Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Sites program.
This program consists of a group of 10 or so undergraduates who work in the research programs of the host institution. Each student is associated with a specific research project, where he/she works closely with the faculty and other researchers. Students are granted stipends and, in many cases, assistance with housing and travel. However, undergraduate students supported with NSF funds must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States or its possessions (see the NSF website at https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/ for more information). The REU Site program funds only STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Thus, it is not an across-the-board funding source for all areas of undergraduate research.
The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) is another great institution whose mission is to support and promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship. Through its division for Undergraduate Research Programs, the CUR supports a broad range of disciplines, including arts and humanities, biology, chemistry, education, engineering, geosciences, health sciences, mathematics and computer science, physics and astronomy, psychology, and social sciences. The CUR also has an at-large division for college administrators and other disciplines. Acceptance into a CUR program is very selective and limited, and competition for acceptance is very competitive.
The value of such programs is apparent, since most institutions with graduate programs focus most of their attention and resources on their graduate students, leaving little opportunity for professors to invest time or effort on undergraduate research. Even those institutions without graduate programs— liberal arts schools, community colleges, and some four-year colleges/universities—do very little undergraduate research due to time and funding restrictions. While some schools encourage and will provide funding for summer undergraduate research, this very seldom carries over into the regular semesters.
Encouraging undergraduate research
Encouraging undergraduate research should be a collaborative effort between faculty and school administrators. This can be done by promoting awareness, promoting research opportunities, identifying student potential, and presenting the research process.
• Promoting Awareness
Students need to be made aware of the opportunity for and importance of undergraduate research. By generating awareness, students will understand that doing research is beneficial to their academic and career advancement, and that it is an important experience for anyone interested in gaining more knowledge and a deeper appreciation of their academic field.
Promoting awareness can be done through any number of methods, including but not limited to: promotion in the classroom, posting flyers and announcements on bulletin boards, email reminders to the students, and even one-on-one discussions between faculty and students. This last method is particularly useful if a faculty member is conducting independent research in their specialized academic field and would like assistance from students who show potential for following in their footsteps. Another good idea can be taken from Northern Arizona University, which created a student undergraduate research council that promotes awareness of undergraduate research opportunities at the university.
• Promoting Undergraduate Research Opportunities
An article titled “Low-Cost Strategies for Promoting Undergraduate Research at Research Universities” appearing in the Spring 2010 issue of Peer Review published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, discussed several methods of promoting undergraduate research opportunities. These methods are feasible not only for research universities, but also for any college or university wanting to improve its undergraduate research program or get more students interested in doing undergraduate research. The methods are summarized below.
- Create a campus-wide undergraduate research office (URO) that coordinates and supports undergraduate research and creative activities in all disciplines. A URO can support a wide variety of initiatives that encourage the integration of research and learning.
- Develop a website that provides a database of current research opportunities and information about why research experience is useful, how to get started on a research project, how to find funding, and how to present one’s results at meetings and in publications.
- Mobilize student volunteers (usually students who have already done some research) to form a student advisory committee for sharing their perspectives and advising their peers on how best to get involved in research.
- Start a campus-wide undergraduate research symposium that provides a forum for students to learn how to present their work; helps undergraduates not yet involved in research to gain access to mentors and generate ideas for projects; allows the university to showcase the powerful impact that research participation has on undergraduate education; and allows students, faculty, and staff to discuss current research with community members, parents, and others interested in the research process.
- Start a summer research institute for students who remain on campus all summer to conduct research independently or in organized programs. Activities could include programs for professional development, brown-bag lunches, social events, and recreational activities such as Ultimate Frisbee contests and softball games.
- Develop a fall poster program demonstrating the type of work being done by students already engaged in undergraduate research. Students could submit abstracts and discuss their posters with peers, faculty, and others. At the same time, the school could offer concurrent workshops for first-year students and others who have not yet started doing research.
- Develop an integrated web database to effectively and efficiently manage data, program information, and communications. Such a database could be used for many interrelated purposes, such as documenting student interest forms; distributing information about research opportunities on and off campus; processing student proposals, applications, symposium abstracts, and journal submissions.
- Form an undergraduate research ambassador program consisting of students who meet and talk with their peers to encourage them to get involved with research. The ambassadors would also help to bridge the gap between faculty and students.
As you can see, the research process is a long, drawn-out, tedious exercise. It takes patience, determination and perseverance to see it through to completion. Consequently, to get students interested in doing so—and keeping them interested—is of vital importance, not to mention a major challenge. Many of the ideas presented in the “Promoting Undergraduate Research Opportunities” section above are valid suggestions and worthy of further study, if not implementation. The consequences of not doing so are too great to even consider.
Snow, Allison A., Janice DeCosmo and Said M. Shokair, “Low-Cost Strategies for Promoting Undergraduate Research at Research Universities,” Peer Review, Spring 2010, Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Chris O’Riordan-Adjah, PhD, MS, PE, is director of engineering programs and associate professor at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. He is a professional engineer licensed in Michigan, Florida, Illinois and Missouri, and is an independent structural engineering contractor.