Science Magazine, August 31, 2001
Student Research: What Is It Good For?
More and more undergraduates are working in labs and out in the field. But
what's the point? After decades of blind faith, educators are finally beginning
to investigate what makes for a good research experience
Andrea Martin took off for Jamaica's Discovery Bay after completing her
junior year at the College of Wooster. But the geology major wasn't there to
have fun in the sun after a grueling academic year. Instead, she and two other
Wooster students spent 10 days collecting 125,000-year-old pieces of coral reef
and rhodoliths. Then they lugged them back to Ohio to begin independent study
(IS) projects on characterizing the change in sea levels during the last
interglacial warming period.
Martin loved the long, hot days prying fossils from the carbonate formations
under the watchful eye of Wooster geology professor Mark Wilson, who has
analyzed a well-dated erosion surface in the Bahamas from the same period. She
hopes to earn a doctorate in paleontology or sedimentology and then become an
academic. "I can picture myself as a professor at a place like
Wooster," she says. But it wasn't the crystalline waters of the Caribbean,
or the fact that she attends one of a handful of U.S. colleges where
undergraduate research is a requirement for graduation, that sold her on the
discipline. "I've wanted to be a geologist since the fourth grade,"
she says, "starting with the 'rock hound' program at my elementary school.
When it was time to go to college, I looked for schools with strong geology
programs. I didn't find out about the IS requirement until after I had
When educators talk about the value of undergraduate research, they often
cite students like Martin and programs like Wooster's. Many working scientists
have fond memories of undergraduate days spent in the field or in the
lab--including Wilson, who graduated from Wooster in 1978 and came back because
he liked the way the school blends undergraduate teaching and research. And the
ranks of undergraduate researchers are growing: A recent survey of 136 liberal
arts colleges found that the number of students engaged in some type of research
had risen by 70% in the past decade, while those pursuing more intensive summer
projects had grown by 40% (Science, 13 July, p. 193).
Undergraduate research is equally popular among the major research
universities. "Research is the lifeblood of our institution, and it's a
good way to connect our faculty and students," says Hank Dobin, associate
dean of the college at Princeton University, which requires all seniors to
conduct a research project. It's even become a cottage industry: Undergraduates
have started several journals in recent years to showcase their work and to
learn the nuts and bolts of scientific publishing (www.jyi.org).
But what do students get from doing research? Would present-day scientists
have chosen different careers if they hadn't done research as undergraduates?
And how do their scientific achievements stack up against those of colleagues
who missed the opportunity? The answers aren't clear, because thorough
evaluations are only now getting under way. "As an assumption,
undergraduate research makes logical sense. But we have no idea what students
actually learn from it," says Elizabeth VanderPutten, an education program
manager at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds millions of
dollars' worth of undergraduate research projects every year. "At the same
time, it stands to reason that a poorly structured experience may be worse than
none at all." (Highlight added.)
Defining a good experience
Educational researchers David Lopatto and Elaine Seymour are hoping that a
3-year, $650,000 grant from NSF will help answer some of those questions.
Lopatto, a psychologist at Grinnell College in Iowa, and Seymour, a sociologist
at the University of Colorado, Boulder, are interviewing students and faculty
members at four top-rated liberal arts schools--Harvey Mudd College of Pomona,
California; Wellesley College in Massachusetts; Hope College in Holland,
Michigan; and Grinnell. The schools were among a group of 10 that NSF honored in
1998 for their success in integrating their twin responsibilities of research
and education. They also help to stock the scientific pipeline: A greater
percentage of undergraduates at Harvey Mudd--nearly half--go on to earn science
Ph.D.s than at any other school in the country, for example.
The project, begun last summer, aims to identify key features of
"good" research experiences, as well as create a survey instrument
that other schools can use to measure their own efforts, says Lopatto. He
suspects that "the benefits of undergraduate research will be related to a
university's commitment." But the study isn't perfect, he admits. It lacks
the usual control group, because "you can't go to a school and say we
picked you because you're a failure" at providing research opportunities
for undergraduates. And no follow-up is planned: Once the project ends in 2003,
each school will have to track its own students if it wants longitudinal data.
Sheldon Wettag, provost of Harvey Mudd, says he expects the NSF study
"to validate the importance of an undergraduate research experience,"
and he predicts that the results "won't change things much for us." A
research-based "capstone experience" is a graduation requirement at
Harvey Mudd, and Wettag says that the school has begun to encourage all students
to become involved earlier in their undergraduate careers and to push sophomores
into summer research projects. "We think that the sooner they get engaged,
the more likely they will be to pursue science and to be more productive on
their senior project," he says. Still, he acknowledges that "we
haven't thought much about how to make [research] a good experience."
One of the few studies that has been done on the purpose of undergraduate
research came up with mixed findings. A June 2000 report to NSF on its
15-year-old Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program found a lack
of consensus on goals and how to measure them. "It means different things
to different people," says the principal author, Chip Story of SRI
International, a research and consulting firm in Menlo Park, California.
Visiting 12 of the more than 500 schools that had received NSF grants during the
last decade to host students, Story found great variations in how the programs
were carried out, who they served, and why institutions and students
participated. At one site, Story says, students did no research at all; instead,
they listened to speakers and planned visits to professional meetings and
conferences. Many students see it as a way to bolster their résumés, he says,
while some schools use it mainly as a recruiting device. At the same time, he
noted that every school judged its program to be "successful" and that
panels of outside NSF reviewers have repeatedly called for an expansion of the
Administrators at St. Mary's College of Maryland, a small state school in
Southern Maryland, recently did their own cost- benefit analysis of the value of
undergraduate research. In 1996 faculty members voted to require a
research-based project of all seniors starting with the class of 2002 and began
sponsoring them on a voluntary basis. But last year they changed their minds,
modifying the rule to leave the choice up to individual departments. Ten chose
to keep the requirement, including all the natural science programs, while 10
made it optional. "They didn't realize that it would take up so much time
and be so difficult," says Lorraine Glidden, associate provost and a
professor of psychology, explaining the vote, "or that some students would
not be well prepared."
Even with an incentive--faculty members receive a one-course credit for every
six projects that they supervise--many faculty members seem to view it as more
of a burden than a benefit. Asked on a survey to rate its value to their
professional development, faculty members gave the projects a 3.6 on a scale of
1 to 9. The mean score for all questions on the survey was 7.1. At the same
time, students felt very positive about the experience, giving it a near-perfect
8.5 when asked how much they had learned. An internal evaluation concluded that
"faculty assess it as a very positive experience for their students but
mixed for themselves. They value the mentoring relationships but recognize that
there is some trade-off in their own scholarship and creative work."
Doing the unexpected
Wilson has a much more positive view of his own experiences with
undergraduate research. He says Wooster has prescribed an IS project for so
long--since 1948--that the concept is ingrained in everything he does.
"When I look at my research, I think first of how students can connect to
it," says Wilson, who has published on evolutionary paleoecology in leading
journals. "And when we are teaching, and students ask questions, the tag
line is often, 'That would make a good IS project.' I think that people who
wonder what a student can do are missing a big opportunity. They can do
The IS project prepared him well for graduate school, says Wilson, who earned
a Ph.D. in 1981 from the University of California, Berkeley. But he doesn't
favor making it a requirement at all undergraduate institutions. "It's a
huge investment in time and money," he says. "And faculty have to be
active researchers for it to be of value. I think it would be very hard [for a
school] to start from scratch if it didn't already value student research."
Martin's visit to Jamaica didn't change her career intentions, as she was
already hooked on paleontology before she headed south. But it may have
reinforced her choice. "It's my most favorite subject," she says.
"The idea of seeing the past, and then trying to piece together how
everything lived back then, is just incredible. It's what I want to do with my
Volume 293, Number 5535, Issue of 31 Aug 2001, pp. 1614-1615.
Copyright © 2001
by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.