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Promoting and Encouraging Undergraduate Research, Part II


Promoting and Encouraging Undergraduate Research, Part II

undergrad researchers

In an earlier piece, I offered suggestions and techniques on how to best promote and encourage undergraduate research within your programs and across campus. Here I discuss another critical component to undergraduate research: funding.

The issue of supporting undergraduate research comes into sharp focus through the following statement issued by the Council on Undergraduate Research:

American colleges and universities…are embracing undergraduate research as a powerful learning [tool] across all disciplines and all types of institutions. Though many professors consider undergraduate research as a central part of their faculty role, finding time to work with undergraduate researchers is a major concern. Even with administrative commitment to undergraduate research, institutions find it challenging to fund reassigned time for faculty or provide courses that support undergraduate research. And there is often significant controversy about whether and how faculty engagement in undergraduate research should be rewarded in reappointment, promotion, and tenure decisions.

From reading this statement, one can understand that supporting undergraduate research requires a lot of dedication, planning, and creativity. Although time and money are both noted as stumbling blocks to undergraduate research, finding time is the less critical problem—usually solved by scheduling and priority adjustments. Funding, however, is the priority issue and will be discussed at length below.

Basically, there are two types of funding: internal (within the college or university itself) and external (companies, foundations, government agencies, alumni, etc.). A paper titled “Obtaining Funding and Support for Undergraduate Research,” published by Brigham Young University, offers a significant amount of information for those seeking ways to fund undergraduate research, as discussed below.

Building a Track Record

The first step in obtaining funding and support for undergraduate research is to get experience conducting research and documenting the efforts. Having this documentation will ensure more success in securing funding.

To increase the track record of experience, consider having the students present their work at the end of the term. This could be done within the students’ own department (math, science, technology, etc.), at a professional association sectional meeting, or at a regional undergraduate research conference. Also, have the students write up their work; and if appropriate, submit it to a journal for publication. In addition, increase faculty involvement with undergraduate research by having them attend conferences and sessions in which students can present poster presentations of their research. Finally, maintain a master file documenting all of these research efforts and use it when applying for funding and preparing a proposal.

Internal Funding Resources

Even with tight budget restrictions, there are often more in-house funding resources than one would expect. Below are a few examples.

1. University-wide summer undergraduate research programs that offer stipends for students to do research with a professor. Colleagues or a department chairman should know if such a program exists.

2. Flexible funds that department administrators sometimes have. These are generally not publicized and must be sought out. If successful, a stipend may be approved for a student to do research; however, a more modest request such as partial funding for a student to attend a conference to present a talk or poster is more likely to be honored.

3. Start-up funds for new faculty. New hires at an institution should consider negotiating funds for undergraduate research in their start-up package.

4. Federal work-study grants for students doing undergraduate research. A faculty member can hire a student through a work-study program to assist with independent research. Federal work-study funds are awarded to students who apply for financial aid and request work-study on their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), with awards being based on their family financial situation.

5. Funding through alumni donations. This is best done through the college or university development office, which can set up a meeting with a potential donor.

External Funding Resources

Sources of external funding for undergraduate research include national organizations, private industries and businesses, government agencies and national laboratories, and scientific research foundations. Below is a sample listing of these potential funding sources for various disciplines. The list is by no means comprehensive.

National Organizations

• Smithsonian Institute Internship Program

• National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF)

• National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program and Computer and Information Science Engineering (CISE) Program

• US National Library of Medicine (NLM) Undergraduate Student Research Participation Program

• American Philosophical Society (APS) Library Resident Research Fellowship

• Sackler Institute of Biomedical Sciences (SIBS), NYU Medical Center, Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP)

• American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) Summer Undergraduate Research Programs in Medicine

• National Institutes of Health (NIH) Undergraduate Scholarship Program

• Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) Libbie H. Hyman Memorial Scholarship

• Emergency Nurses Association Foundation (ENAF) Undergraduate Scholarships

• National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Campus Ecology Fellowship Program

• National Strength and Conditioning Foundation (NSCF) Undergraduate Research Grant and GNC Nutritional Research Grant

• Geological Society of America (GSA) Undergraduate Student Research Grants

• American Psychological Society (APS) Student Grant Program

• American Psychological Association (APA) Summer Science Institute

Private Industries and Businesses

• Some universities have had success with eBay, Eastman Kodak Company, and Raytheon for both research projects and funding, and Intel Corporation holds an Intel Research Award contest every year. It is also worth the effort to approach major airlines and ask them to support students in the form of travel vouchers, and the same for hotels to help with lodging expenses.

Government Agencies

• A partial list of these agencies includes: the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Energy (DOE). Also, there are national laboratories such as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratory. Grants.gov is also a good online resource to search for funding opportunities available through the federal government.

Scientific Research Foundations

• These foundations are too numerous to list. Wikipedia has perhaps one of the best listings at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Scientific_research_foundations

Some Tips on Writing a Strong Proposal

A successful proposal is clearly written and consists of both a great idea and demonstrated experience of success. In preparing a proposal, it is a good idea to secure a copy of a previously funded proposal to see what it contains. Most funding resources list individuals who have received funds; therefore, it is wise to contact some of these individuals—whether you know them or not—and ask them if they would be willing to share a copy of their proposal. Chances are favorable that they won’t mind doing so.

When writing the proposal, be sure to state several times the reason it deserves. (Repetition is reinforcement.) Be creative in making the proposal stand out in a positive way, such as emphasizing the uniqueness of the research being done or how it will benefit the scientific community or society in general. Also, have someone who is not involved with the project read the proposal before submitting it. Get their feedback: Is it clear? What is the main idea they get from reading it? Are there any typos?

Keep in mind that a funding agency is not always able to provide the full amount requested, or there may be restrictions on how the funds are to be used. In this case, it’s a good idea to combine funds from other sources. For example, when a mathematics professor at Brigham Young University applied for an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) grant from the National Science Foundation, he knew that he could get funds from the university to support students participating in the REU. Therefore, in his proposal, he wrote that if NSF would fund nine students for doing research, BYU would fund an additional four students. If you have other sources of funding, remember to include a letter of support from these other sources outlining their commitment.

Finally, although many sources of funding exist, it’s a competitive process. If you’re not successful initially, keep trying. Also, seek feedback if your proposal is rejected. Be creative. Keep looking for new or alternative opportunities for funding.

A final word

It is apparent that undergraduate research is important and its benefits and advantages can be reviewed in a previous article, “Why Undergraduate Research.” The main issue, then, is how to drive home the message to those who would profit the most: the undergraduate students who have never given research a second thought, or even a first thought. Even those who aren’t planning on attending graduate school shouldn’t be written off as unlikely research candidates.

So, who bears the responsibility for delivering the message and ensuring that it is received? The immediate answer, of course, is the faculty——especially faculty members who are engaged in their own independent research. But, like anyone else, they need and deserve a helping hand. They need the support and backing of school administrators, other faculty members in other disciplines (as part of the education team), students already working on research programs or projects, and even members of the community——in particular, business owners and leaders who stand to gain from hiring highly qualified graduates.

Consequently, everyone involved in the education process must share a certain amount of the responsibility for lighting a fire under the undergraduates. They need motivation, mentors, people to look up to as good examples, validation of their potential, and reinforcement of the benefits to be accrued by plodding down the research path. This can only be done by a concerted effort from the entire education community investing time, energy, talent, ingenuity, creativity, and old-fashioned elbow grease to see that the job gets done.

The United States is blessed with some of the finest educational institutions in the world and some of the best-educated people in the world. It’s a heritage of which we can all be proud. But we can’t afford to rest on our laurels believing things will always be this way. It takes sweat equity to make it all work and to maintain the high ground. We owe it to current and future students to ensure that the highest standard of educational opportunities will be available to them. We owe it to undergraduates that they will never be underestimated, neglected, or ignored. They, too, can become partners in the education process, making valuable contributions. They just need to be shown how.


“Faculty Support and Undergraduate Research: Innovations in Faculty Role Definition, Workload, and Reward,” Council on Undergraduate Research, Edited by: Nancy H. Hensel and Elizabeth L. Paul. Retrieved from https://www.cur.org/publications/publication_listings/faculty_support/

“Obtaining Funding and Support for Undergraduate Research,” Brigham Young University, authors Michael Dorff (of Brigham Young University) and Darren A. Narayan (of Rochester Institute of Technology). Retrieved from https://math.byu.edu/~mdorff/docs/ondoingresearch/ObtainingFundingAndSupportforUndergraduateResearch.pdf

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.


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