Literature suggests real benefits to undergraduate research, including improving students’ understanding of the research process, their resilience, and their ability to persist through failure. However, at primarily undergraduate institutions, there are a number of challenges in making the undergraduate research experience successful for both students and faculty mentors. First, there is a significant burden on faculty mentors who, along with designing a research project, have typically been asked to individually advise students on applying for graduate study, train them in reading and writing about research, and critique posters and presentations. These are skills which could be addressed more broadly among all research students. Additionally, due to limited opportunities for group interactions during summer research and the number of faculty advising individual students, students may lack a research community for interaction and support.
To develop a set of best practices for undergraduate research at our institution and support both student and faculty development, we initiated an Undergraduate Research Community (URC) for the past two summers. Through the URC, we offered a number of workshops aimed at developing general research skills for students (reading and interpreting the literature, abstract writing, visualizing data, preparing posters, and applying to graduate school), along with social activities and opportunities to present their work informally.
This paper will discuss the structure of the URC at the authors’ institution and related results from a survey developed to understand the impact of the summer research experience on student skills and attitudes. Before and after their research experience, students completed a self-assessment regarding their competency in research skills and feeling of involvement in the broader engineering community.
We see several positive outcomes from the URC. First, a large number of women underclassmen with one term or less of prior experience participated in summer research activities and in the URC in 2017 and 2018. Second, all students reported significant improvements in their abilities to engage in various research-related behaviors. Specifically, planning and designing experiments, using primary literature, and writing testable hypotheses were most significantly impacted when comparing pre- and post-survey data. Students also reported a significant increase in their confidence in designing experiments and performing research. When asked to identify three top areas improved as a result of their research experiences, communicating research findings rose to the top of the list. Perhaps most importantly, students noted that they felt part of the larger scientific and engineering community after their experience. Finally, over 75% plan to continue their research beyond the summer and pursue graduate school.
To build upon previous work, which has primarily relied on self-assessment by students, faculty, and alumni, we included several open-ended questions from a previously published assessment of student knowledge of experimental design, which were then evaluated by faculty according to a standard rubric. In addition, student and faculty mentor interviews were conducted to better understand areas of weakness and strengths of the URC. Based on these data, we hope to identify areas where our undergraduate research program can be improved, while also maintaining aspects of the program that are already highly beneficial to students.
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