The revelations of undergraduate research

College is all about lectures to sleep by in large impersonal lecture halls, a common perception that is all too readily demonstrated on most college and university campuses. Even in high school, teachers and principals tout their lectures to students as college prep: you are going to have to do this in college, so you might as well start now. This in spite of all the evidence that the college lecture is probably the least effective path to learning that students encounter.

Most colleges and universities offer a cure to this travesty of educational pedagogy. It is called undergraduate research. In my case, a research project in high school birthed a passion that propelled me into a science major in college. And a research project in college, stretching over a summer and two semesters, flung open doors to excitement I could not have imagined. Hands-on personal experience led to new, more effective ways of learning. One-on-one mentoring by a faculty member enabled some sips of wisdom and maturation, priceless for the career that was to follow. It is not well known that such an undergraduate research experience is accessible for many students at colleges and universities across the country.

For the sciences (for other disciplines, please honor me with your patience until later in this piece), undergraduate research usually takes place in the laboratory or in the clinic. Most faculty members in the sciences at major research universities, and at many undergraduate colleges and universities, run research programs. These programs pursue exciting goals established in broad outline by the faculty member. The research is done in a variety of settings. Commonly it is done in the laboratory of that faculty member, which might be a chemistry laboratory with benches, hoods, and interesting equipment. Research may be done in a hospital clinic, with patients and healthcare personnel involved. Or it may involve human subjects in more defined situations. It may be done at a facility used in common by groups of scientists, such as can be found at some national laboratories run by the federal government. The research may be in the field, such as studies of wolves in northern Minnesota or studies of thermophilic archaebacteria in Yellowstone National Park, or of the redwoods in California coastal environments. Research may be done in part in silico (in computers), where large databases (say of DNA sequences) are analyzed or where computational simulations of the dynamics of molecules are explored. Some research is extraordinarily complex, some is much more straightforward, but in all cases, research is the exploration of the unknown in search of answers to intriguing questions. This kind of research usually involves experimentation, the deliberate manipulation of variables to fish for new knowledge or to test pre-formed hypotheses.

The humanities are also devoted to research. The venues for this research tends to be significantly different from the sciences, but the research is characterized by the same drive to answer questions and uncover new knowledge. The research might be that of an archaeologist, uncovering evidence of early civilizations in the Orkneys. It might be an historian both answering and posing questions about the real man behind the Jefferson founding father myths. It might be a sociologist striving to understand what drove a culture into genocide such as in Cambodia. It might be an expert in English literature working to comprehend how the English language developed.

The student who gains access to the undergraduate research experience is truly fortunate. It is exciting. It expands the mind. It trains the brain in analysis of information. It teaches students how to write in their discipline. It provides a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. It creates a one-on-one relationship between a student and a faculty member that can be help a student to grow not only in the discipline but in their lives as a human being. Undergraduate research can make a large university seem manageable, even feel like a small college. For these and other advantages, colleges and universities tout their opportunities for undergraduate research to high schoolers searching for a place for themselves in higher education. Most students I have met who have pursued research as undergraduates describe it as the most exciting and valuable piece of their undergraduate academic career.

Undergraduate research is not without challenges, however, and not all these challenges are being adequately met by the colleges and universities. One issue is the fundamental opportunity. Most college professors have Ph.D.'s and thus are trained in research in their discipline. However, at many public institutions, enrollment grows without a corresponding increase in the number of research-active Ph.D. faculty members. As noted above, undergraduate research requires a one-on-one relationship between teacher and student. Therefore any given faculty member can take on a limited number of students for undergraduate research. Because of the high and growing student/professor ratios at most public institutions, a smaller and smaller percentage of students will have access to this hugely beneficial educational experience.

A related problem arises because where there is an increase in the total number of faculty members in public institutions, it is in non-tenure track faculty, individuals who often have Ph.D.'s, but are hired to teach and have no time (and usually no access to resources) to carry out research. This management decision by universities leads to fewer opportunities for undergraduates to dive into research projects.

There are also the questions of resources for the students to carry out the research. Research takes time and dedication. For example in the sciences, initial training in the demands of the discipline is so time-consuming that a student needs to include a summer of work, as well as work during a semester, to achieve a notable (and publishable) result. In non-science disciplines, the student benefits considerably from the focus possible outside the confines of a semester with all its coursework. In either case, dedicating a summer to research is impossible for many students because of the necessity for them to work to earn resources necessary for their families and to return to the university in the fall.

To address these needs, students must have access to financial support to pursue research. Some institutions offer limited fellowships to students to support them over the summer, in lieu of a summer job. Some faculty members have grant funds that can be used to support a student working on a project. However it is achieved, there exists a great need that today is only partially filled, to support undergraduates in research.

The benefits of an undergraduate research experience, regardless of discipline, are well established. As many qualified students as possible should be enabled to profit from this unique and highly stimulating experience.