• April 25, 2014

Doing Research With Undergraduates

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

One of the most disheartening experiences of my undergraduate education—a mostly terrific four years—came about when I decided, in my senior year, that I wanted to pursue an independent study. I had some vague ideas about what I wanted to focus on, but mostly I was hoping for the kind of intensive research experience, working closely with a faculty mentor, that would help me figure out whether I should pursue graduate study.

I approached a faculty member in one of my two majors. He apologized, and said he was too busy to supervise an independent study in the coming semester. I tried another faculty member. She also told me that she was too busy; she recommended a colleague of hers who worked in the same area. As I was leaving her office, though, she said something strange.

"Don't tell him I sent you."

The faculty member she recommended, of course, was also too busy. At that point I realized that I was, perhaps, asking for more from those faculty members than I understood, which would help explain the second professor's cryptic comment. I gave up the search and finished my senior year with a regular suite of courses.

In defense of all three faculty members, I did not know any of them as well as I should have—I was a relatively quiet student in class, and never visited faculty members in their office hours—and I did not have a fully worked-out proposal for what I hoped to study. As a faculty member now, I can understand perfectly well why they expressed little interest in supervising an ill-conceived project with an undergraduate they barely knew.

Having now sat on the other side of the desk, and supervised several intensive student-research projects—a few independent studies, and a few honors theses—I also understand more fully that I missed out on a terrific opportunity as a student. One of the best learning experiences that an undergraduate can have is to tackle a complex problem or question, one that requires them to do research, guided by an experienced researcher, and think creatively in the face of obstacles and dead ends. Students in the honors program that I have been directing for the past two years have consistently pointed to their senior thesis as the most substantive learning experience of their education.

This past spring I had the good fortune to learn about a program, paid for by the National Science Foundation, that helps support undergraduate research experiences in a wide range of disciplines at institutions around the country. Those opportunities are not exactly like the kind of independent study experience that I was seeking as an undergraduate, but they do provide that rare and valuable opportunity for a student to work closely with a faculty member on a complex problem or question—in this case, by joining a faculty member or a team of researchers who are tackling an issue that stems from a larger research agenda.

The Research Experience for Undergraduates Site program, as the Web site explains, "supports active research participation by undergraduate students in any of the areas of research funded by the National Science Foundation."

Faculty, programs, or institutions in any of the covered fields—primarily science and social-science disciplines—apply to become REU Sites. Once accepted, they receive grant money that allows them to support undergraduates who will join them for specific research projects. The deadline for applying to become an REU Site for some disciplines is coming up on August 24; interested faculty can find more information here. Undergraduates can check the listings for participating colleges here. Sites are organized by discipline; clicking through to any discipline will then yield a full list of institutions doing work in that area, with deadlines and information on the application process.

The good work being done through this federal program first came to my attention when I attended a talk by Colin Polsky, an associate professor of geography at Clark University, where he is also an associate dean and director of Clark's Human-Environment Regional Observatory, or HERO, which is also a REU Site.

Clark's HERO program was created a decade ago but has been supported by an NSF grant for the past three years. Polsky said the program "integrates undergraduates and graduate students into cutting-edge geographical research. We examine land-use and land-cover change, applied to Massachusetts woodlands and suburban settings."

Like all REU Sites, the program attracts undergraduates from around the country by advertising each year through the NSF Web site; and although compensation may vary from institution to institution, Clark has been able to offer its student researchers—in addition to the opportunity to work in innovative research teams with Clark faculty members and graduate students—a generous salary (plus a stipend for travel, room, and board) for eight weeks of summer work. Clark's program will also pay the travel expenses for any students who present their research at select scientific conferences.

After listening to Polsky's talk about the program, I wrote to him to learn more about it. Although it might seem obvious, I asked him to articulate what separates the learning that students might do during their summer research from the learning they do in the traditional classroom.

"HERO," Polsky said, "is one example of what Clark calls a 'community of effective practice.' Learning in a classroom is very different from learning in a community of effective practice. These communities are (1) enduring and (2) multigenerational groups who coalesce around a shared research theme, and that (3) intentionally develop 'capacities of effective practice,' a concept Clark takes from research in the learning sciences." He means capacities like creativity, adaptability, and the art of collaboration.

Helping undergraduates develop all of those qualities in a single session of summer work might seem like a pretty tall order. But he said the research that students do "has an exploratory feel. We announce on Day One that, because the research is motivated by faculty's research projects, we're pushing the boundaries of what we know, so we may not be sure of what specific data collection and analysis we should do, or even sometimes how to do the data collection and analysis."

In other words, the students are not simply cogs in a laboratory assembly line, performing the same task over and over again. As the research project develops, they—along with the faculty members and graduate students—might find themselves pulled up short by the data, befuddled by an unexpected result, or staring at a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

In those moments, the collaborative nature of the experience, and the multigenerational nature of the groups, can prove to be a tremendous asset.

"We assign tasks," Polsky said, "to teams composed of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. The learning-sciences literature has demonstrated that learning is more efficient and effective in such groups. For example, not only do undergrads learn well from grad students, but so, too, do junior undergrads learn well from senior undergrads, and beginning grad students learn from advanced grad students. The undergrads bring fresh perspective—they are not entrenched in views from the discipline. As a result, the faculty and grad students tend to learn a lot from the undergrads, too."

But the unpredictable and open-ended nature of the research, even with the support of the teams, can prove to be a source of anxiety for some undergraduates. "There is a natural uncertainty that comes with conducting cutting-edge research," Polsky said. "By definition, we do not necessarily know before we begin which is the 'best' set of data collection and analysis steps to take. This uncertainty can translate quickly into anxiety in the student, because students are used to a prescribed schedule of lectures and assignments given to them on Day One of the semester."

And while Polsky sees the teams as one of the program's primary strengths, they can also provoke problems: "Anxiety can also arise from the team-based nature of the project. Working on a team means negotiating interpersonal dynamics—that is, spending considerable energy on nonscholarly activities."

Despite the challenges, Polsky believes strongly in the value of the experience for undergraduates. Clark has also been cultivating a handful of additional programs that provide similar experiences—regardless of field and regardless of whether the programs can obtain federal grant support.

So if a curious student comes to you this semester looking for an independent study or an intensive research experience, and you really don't have the time to take on one more obligation, consider pointing that student to the REU Web site, and encouraging him or her to take advantage of an opportunity to engage in a deep, collaborative, and exciting research process.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.

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