This evidence-based paper assesses strategies for Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) social program success. REU programs typically bring together students from across the country – or even around the world – to a university campus for the summer. While at this university, the students learn how to conduct real research in their discipline by actually doing it, under the supervision of a faculty mentor. Giving students exposure to conducting bona fide research allows them to determine whether they may be interested in pursuing a research career (and, to support this, continuing on to graduate-level education).
Many students who participate in REU programs remember these programs long after the program is complete. The initial experience, provided by REUs, of working with a faculty mentor on bona fide research is undoubtedly key to the educational and career planning benefits that students enjoy. However, this is not the only source of benefit from program participation. For many students – even those that don’t go on to pursue careers in research – the experience with the other REU students builds friendships that can last through their college career and beyond. In this regard, the REU is effectively professional networking for pre-professionals.
The best REU experiences typically don’t happen by accident. They must be deliberately planned by program directors and faculty mentors – and in some cases, even the students themselves. Despite the importance of this component of REU programs, minimal assessment of REU social programs is conducted. This paper considers what makes a strong REU social program. It reviews the literature regarding teambuilding and bonding – particularly for college and college age students. It also discusses other team-building and bonding environments commonly experienced by traditional age college students and compares and contrasts them to REU participation. The paper then continues to present examples of REU social programs used for four years of a computing-discipline REU program. Relevant student survey results for each year are juxtaposed with social program offerings and the impact of the social program decisions on student perception and outcomes is discussed. From this discussion, a template for a successful REU social program is presented that is directly applicable to many disciplines and easily adaptable to most others. A discussion of how to adapt and implement the template follows its presentation. Focus then turns to other decisions made in the operation of a REU program that impact the social experience and student enjoyment, bonding and perceptions. Next, special considerations are discussed, such as how to best accommodate non-traditional age students and students with disabilities or special needs. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of the impact of the social program on student outcomes. Its long-term impact on students is discussed. Also, the impact of the social program on increasing students’ interest in research careers is considered. Potential topics for future investigation are also identified.
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