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Bridging the Gap Between Undergraduate Education and Research

This is the first weekly student post on our relaunched PLOS Student Blog. Read about the blog’s purpose and scope on SciEd.

Undergraduate science education is changing.  Fading are the days of large introductory lectures, where faceless students are merely consumers of certain knowledge to be later regurgitated on an exam. That model of teaching might get the information across, but it fails to engage students.  Where the infamous ‘weed-out’ courses do succeed, however, is in depleting the science talent pool: only 40% of students intending to major in a STEM discipline actually graduate with that major.

In February 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  The report is a response to a Bureau of Labor study projecting that demand in the science and technology sector will grow by an estimated one million jobs by 2018. One of the propositions to help fulfill that demand is to inspire more students to stay in science through undergraduate participation in faculty research. Accordingly, both the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have several active programs to fund and support the integration of undergraduate education and research at the university level.

Undergraduates present their research at the Notre Dame College of Science Joint Annual Meeting
Undergraduates present their research at the Notre Dame College of Science Joint Annual Meeting

In academia, the line between teaching-oriented versus research-oriented faculty is becoming blurred as both faculty and students are challenged to embrace engaged learning experiences and evidence-based education through undergraduate research. This has been the transition in higher education over the last 15 years: moving toward creating powerful educational environments that improve learning, rather than adding more courses that merely transfer knowledge.

However, undergraduate research as a retention strategy does not go far enough. Simply inspiring a student to stick with science does not ensure that student will be successful in a STEM job, as the Bureau of Labor report predicting the one million job surplus may have gotten it wrong. An April study from the Economic Policy Institute suggests that the United States may actually be overproducing science graduates by a large margin. For undergraduate research as a teaching mechanism to be sustainable, and to improve student success in entering the STEM workforce after graduation, undergraduates must be challenged and mentored in order to contribute to the research enterprise. The return on the training investment will be realized through research productivity and publication – both during and after their undergraduate career.

In my own experience, being a part of the scientific community through research has defined my undergraduate experience. I have been a part of the same research group since fall of my freshman year, and have a phenomenal faculty mentor: she challenges me to think independently and plan my own experiments, to seek understanding from primary literature rather than a textbook, and to question and critically analyze data and results.  Moreover, I feel she respects me as a colleague by facilitating my contribution to published work and presentation of my work at meetings or conferences.

A report from the Council on Undergraduate Research, succinctly summarizes that undergraduate research should be: faculty-driven, student-centered, and institutionally-supported and provides the combination of factors necessary for: pedagogical effectiveness, enhanced learning outcomes, research productivity, and research program sustainability.

Notre Dame Senior Ansel Nalin presents his research at a 'Talk Science' seminar
Notre Dame Senior Ansel Nalin presents his research at a ‘Talk Science’ seminar

Creating an Undergraduate Research Culture

Why would an undergraduate student want to engage in research? While free pizza or free T-shirts can go quite a long way in enticing college students to do anything, creating a community of student scientists at the department or college level will provide the social framework of a peer group to motivate students.  Further faculty involvement and support of a student scientist community lends credibility and incentive to the undergraduate research enterprise. At my university, for example, monthly ‘Talk Science’ seminars gather science undergraduates over pizza to hear short research talks by one undergraduate and one faculty member, and a yearly conference showcases undergraduate research. We also support an undergraduate journal of scientific research, through which students are a part of the writing and peer review process, and get to publish their work. In the Eck Institute for Global Health at Notre Dame, which has roughly 100 undergraduate students working in faculty member laboratories, undergraduates are regular participants in the institute’s weekly research colloquium; on occasion the student giving the talk is an undergraduate.

Developing an undergraduate research culture also creates a framework for peer mentorship. The freshman or sophomore just getting started in a laboratory, for example, can look to the upperclassman working on a senior thesis or a manuscript for publication. Presumably, over several years of undergraduate research, the student progresses from merely becoming engaged and inspired by science to ultimately contributing to the body of truth that is science, as delineated by Mick Healy and Alan Jenkins in their 2010 report, Strategies for Developing an Active Research Curriculum.

Source: Strategies for Developing an Undergraduate Research Curriculum
Source: Strategies for Developing an Undergraduate Research Curriculum

It is everyone’s best interests for a university to develop engaging curriculum, support an undergraduate research culture, and foster mentorship between students and faculty, in order to more quickly and efficiently guide a student through these developmental learning levels, with a focus on the ‘Intermediate Learning’ stage. A student in the ‘Foundations’ level is merely a consumer of certain knowledge, and while may very well be a great student, does not think independently or critically evaluate the science presented to them – they will not be successful in the science workforce after graduation, unless heavily managed. Rather, a student in the ‘Capstone’ stage, and even to some degree in the ‘Intermediate Learning’ stage, can contribute to research productivity while still in their home institution, and will successfully make the transition to the workforce.

Mentorship: Developing the Student Scientist

In my conversations with fellow undergraduate researchers on what has contributed to their progress in the lab, the resounding common factor is a positive working relationship with their ‘bench mentor’, the individual who first directly supervises a student. The bench mentor is most often a technician, graduate student, or post-doctoral fellow, and is the unsung hero of undergraduate research.  An undergraduate may only see their faculty mentor or principal investigator (PI) once a week at lab meeting, but interacts with the bench mentor daily. They are the first person a student will go to if questions arise, and the first to encourage independent thinking.

Yet, few resources exist for developing teaching-by-doing skills, while there are many more resources available for developing traditional classroom teaching. Improving the student-mentor experience requires that undergraduate mentoring resources be made more available to bench mentors, and that there be incentives to entice and reward graduate students, technicians, and post-docs who mentor undergraduates well. At Notre Dame, the Department of Biological Sciences has started offering mentor-training workshops with this goal in mind, and these have so far been highly attended. Communication and feedback between a student and mentor can help the mentor develop his or her management skills too.

Notre Dame students Jonathan Jou and Valerie Verdun with their faculty mentor, Prof. Rebecca Wingert
Notre Dame students Jonathan Jou and Valerie Verdun with their faculty mentor, Prof. Rebecca Wingert

But the mentor-student relationship is not one-sided, and it is imperative that the student takes responsibility for his or her part of the mentoring relationship. Yet this is not made apparent to undergraduates. In his book, It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss, Bruce Tulgan describes how and why a mentee takes an active role in the mentorship; that thinking can easily be adapted to an undergraduate research situation. Both the bench mentor and faculty mentor are busy and under pressure. Mentoring an undergraduate is understandably not their first priority. When the student takes an active role as a mentee by initiating communication to clarify expectations and set realistic goals, the student is poised to be able to work very well and very fast. An undergraduate can be a productive, contributing member of a research group, and this is in everyone’s best interests. Simply explaining to student how an why to take responsibility for their role in a mentorship at the outset, sets up the student, and the mentor, for a positive and productive working relationship.

For undergraduate research, ‘being valuable’ and doing work ‘very well’ entail thinking independently, reading literature critically and planning experiments – not just following a protocol at the bench. A student should also prepare to communicate their results either in a written report or at a lab meeting, clearly demonstrating their ability to analyze, synthesize and discuss their work.  Unfortunately, these benchmarks are often not made apparent to students. Yet these skills are what will differentiate the STEM graduate who merely knows the facts in their field from one who will successfully integrate into the workforce and contribute to the research enterprise.

Implications for an Undergraduate Research Curriculum

The recommendations set forth last year in Engage to Excel paint a new picture of higher education in the sciences where research informs teaching, and teaching employs evidence-based inquiry.  So what will this mean for course requirements and curriculum? Under the HHMI programs, several universities including Washington University in St. Louis, Lehigh, Northwestern, University of Oregon, and University of California Santa Barbara have condensed the general biology requirements to allow students to take elective course work sooner and to facilitate undergraduate participation in faculty research sooner, while redesigning laboratory courses to be question-based, rather than technique-focused.

Additional aspects of undergraduate research education and the research culture that will be integral to the development of a successful science and technology workforce are scientific communication (writing and presenting), science policy, and research ethics. Fundamentally, for undergraduate research to be a sustainable science workforce development strategy, curriculum and culture must function to foster the transition from research experience to research productivity. With the initiative to add one million college graduates to the STEM workforce over the next ten years, employing undergraduate research on this front creates the opportunity to enhance the quality along with the quantity of our science graduates.

rcottonRachel Cotton is a Senior Biological Sciences major in the Eck Institute for Global Health at the University of Notre Dame, where she conducts immunology and infectious disease research. She is Co-Editor in Chief of the undergraduate research journal, Scientia.

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  2. You’ve mentioned so many incredible programs and I expect that more universities across the nation will begin to also attempt to bridge the gap between research and undergrad education. Thank you for sharing this information and these great programs.

  3. Hello! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us beneficial information to work on. You have done a wonderful job!

  4. Great job! I really like this post!

    Recalling my student years, I can say that being a first-year student in U.S. college, I struggled a lot to make a really good research paper because in my home country school teachers were mostly focusing on cramming rather than analysis.
    I remember it was difficult to understand what research methods I should use and how to organize my essay. That’s why now I’m sure that analytical skills should be developed at school first of all to foster pupils’ interest to research.

    By the way, you may also visit my student blog:

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