PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Leslie A. Sherman
F21 Class of 2004 Statement
Working with undergraduate research students in Chemistry and Environmental Science at Washington College over the past four years has srengthened my belief that research is an invaluable component of a student’s undergraduate experience. I have seen tremendous growth in my students’ laboratory techniques, in their critical thinking skills in terms of interpretation of the literature and of their data, and in their problem solving abilities. The students have developed a lot of confidence in posing their own questions and in taking risks in trying new ideas.
Several aspects of this research experience have struck me as important to a productive research environment for undergraduates. A primary factor is a collaborative working environment. The most intensive research experience for our students is our 10-week summer research program. I have found, as have other faculty here, that having more than one student working on a project with a faculty member – each student with their own component of the project – is highly beneficial. The students feel a sense of teamwork as they work throughout the summer, helping each other in the lab, sometimes giving joint presentations of their work, and figuring out the connection of their results to each other’s part of the project, especially at the end of the summer research program. I have found that when students run into obstacles with their research, which is usually a new experience for them in comparison to doing assigned lab work in their classes, they often find support in one another. I have experienced two models of this teamwork: one in which both students are novices to the project, and one in which a more advanced student is involved. Although both models work nicely, I feel the later is more successful, as the advanced student can help guide the novice and in doing such, learns the material in more depth.
Another important component of a collaborative research environment is maintaining a constructive and open relationship between each student and the faculty mentor. The faculty mentor should be intimately involved in the research throughout the project. However, the degree to which the mentor does this can differ depending on the learning style of the individual student. I have some students, even advanced students, that seem to be most successful in the lab when they are in contact with me throughout the day and even have me working with them side-by-side in what amounts to a mix of a partnership and a teacher/learner relationship. At the other extreme, some students want to be more autonomous throughout the process and prefer less frequent, but more intense meetings. Determining where the student works best on that spectrum of interaction helps tremendously in maintaining a productive relationship.
A second factor that I have found helps define a successful research experience is having a measurable outcome at the end of the students’ portion of the project. The time span of the research project is usually much longer than the time a student is involved. Therefore, it is important to find a piece of the project that will be feasible in the time period available, for example in the 10 weeks of the summer research program. The results of their work, even if they are primarily techniques that did not work out as expected, can then be presented in written or oral form. We have a poster session at the end of our summer program that is open to the whole college. The students seem proud of their work and love to answer questions posed by faculty (especially those whom they know), administrators and peers. Having students present at regional or national conferences, in which they can converse with others in the field about their work, also gives the students a sense that they have really contributed something unique.