Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Undergraduate research

21st Century Pedagogies

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Assessment Activities

As documented in the Summit report, a recent review of the literature on research, assessment, and evaluation of undergraduate research concluded that there were only nine papers, reports, or conference proceedings in which the findings about undergraduate research are well supported. These studies consistently report positive aspects of undergraduate participation in research, but they are limited in scope and require further replication under different circumstances before firm conclusions and truly effective practices can be identified and supported. There are at least two significant studies underway to examine the nature and impact of the undergraduate research experience, although more studies aimed at assessing undergraduate research are needed.

The Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation supported a recent initiative referred to as the Undergraduate Research Summit. The Summit, which was held in August of 2003 at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, brought together an array of stakeholders from the chemistry community, ranging form those with a long history of success in undergraduate research to beginning faculty members who have started on a trajectory of success. Participants represented a variety of constituencies including public and private undergraduate institutions (faculty members and administrators), doctoral-granting institutions, industry, national laboratories, and funding agencies. Participants examined the issues involved in undertaking and sustaining chemistry research at predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs).

Discussion at the meeting was facilitated by a series of white papers that addressed topics such as defining undergraduate research, assessment of undergraduate research, the value of diversity within the chemical sciences, designing a research-supportive curriculum, the value of collaborations, the importance of an appropriate infrastructure to support research, initiating and sustaining research productivity over an academic career, and the potential barriers to undergraduate research at public comprehensive institutions. A report on the outcomes of the Summit has been published and provides recommendations on how to enhance the number, quality, productivity, and visibility of chemistry research programs at PUIs. The Summit web site has other information as well, including copies of the white papers.


Why was such a meeting held? One reason is that undergraduate research has significant value such that efforts to promote increased participation by undergraduates in research are worthwhile. The other is that there has been some concern that chemistry departments at PUIs are not responding rapidly enough to the changing landscape of higher education. Participants at the Summit recognized that chemistry research undertaken with undergraduates has contributed in significant ways to the discipline and hence society. Summit participants were in agreement that a person “conducting research”, whether or not she or he is an undergraduate, must be involved in an original investigation aimed at creating new knowledge.

Equally essential to summit participants was the belief that the findings be disseminated among the relevant community through established means. This usually entails publication of the work in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Summit participants endorsed a definition of undergraduate research that was developed at a session entitled “What Constitutes Undergraduate Research” at the 1997 April Dialogue conference organized by the Council on Undergraduate Research.

Undergraduate research is an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.

But Summit participants recognized that undergraduate research has benefits other than the creation of new knowledge. Usually, the primary motivation for involving undergraduates in research is the potential for enhanced learning and intellectual development. Undergraduates involved in a well-constructed science research project will have the opportunity to search and read the literature, master equipment and laboratory skills needed to undertake their project, and participate in oral and written communication. Students will gain a depth of understanding about aspects of their project that extend well beyond their peers. They will design experiments, solve problems, interpret data, and by conducting an investigation of an original project without a known answer, think and act like a scientist. Participation in a research project also enables undergraduates to become socialized into the discipline. Being the first person to know something has the potential to create a tremendous sense of empowerment, confidence and intellectual growth, especially for undergraduates who have usually never had such an experience in their academic pursuits.

Participation in research has rewards for faculty members as well. Faculty members gain intellectually from participating in research and can improve skills in the same areas as students. Faculty can also gain tremendous personal satisfaction from the enjoyment of bringing a research project to completion, seeing students grow intellectually, and working successfully as a mentor with students. A productive research program with peer-reviewed publications, grants, and conference presentations will enhance the likelihood of gaining tenure, promotion and merit raises, open doors to other opportunities, and provide visibility in the field.

Finally, institutions benefit from the enhanced learning and faculty engagement that occur through participation in research. Institutions also gain prestige and recognition by having their faculty involved in scholarship. Involvement of undergraduates in independent or collaborative projects under the tutelage of a faculty mentor can be a powerful tool in recruitment and retention of students.

Recommendations in the report are aimed at individuals, departments, institutions, funding agencies, and other organizations with an interest in undergraduate research. The need for and value of activities designed to assess undergraduate research is described in the report. An emphasis of the Summit was to explore the utilization of undergraduate research as a means of recruiting and retaining members of historically underrepresented groups to chemistry. Recommendations for effective practices to improve diversity within the chemical sciences are described in the report. The importance of having a research-supportive curriculum and strategies for developing such a curriculum were emphasized as well. Another focus is on the value of developing collaborations, partnerships, and alliances as a way of enhancing the research productivity of faculty at PUIs. Ways that individuals, departments, and institutions can create a culture of undergraduate research are included in the report. An important feature is that many of the recommendations in the report do not require additional resources for their implementation, but instead only require changes in individual, departmental, or institutional practices.