Inquiry-Based Learning via Undergraduate Research

Many of today’s researchers were drawn to the excitement of biology by a mentor. Often that mentor was a faculty member who supervised an undergraduate laboratory project. For example, Mary Allen, the Jean Glasscock Professor of Biological Sciences and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Wellesley, said:

I was an undergraduate studying chemistry at a large research university when I discovered, through a summer of mentored research, that I truly loved the excitement of discovering something new through research. I spent a summer driving around the state of Wisconsin in a University van, collecting large volumes of lake water, then taking them back to the lab and analyzing them and trying to get microbes to grow in them. It was a totally different, and a much more engaging experience, than sitting in lectures with 500 students and going to labs where I followed a cookbook method with some 24 other students. In doing research as an undergraduate, instead of only receiving information, I was engaged actively in the discovery and production of new knowledge, making an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline, and I loved it! (Distinguished Faculty Lecture, September 2000).

Participation in research by all students is a goal to which institutions should aspire. Research gives students a sense of empowerment over a body of knowledge and instills in them the confidence to succeed. This empowerment stems in large part from the intense professional relationship that develops between students and faculty mentors. Mentors and students share in the ownership of research in a manner that promotes mutual growth and learning in a relationship that grows and intensifies over time. It is evident from many quarters that such students develop a sustaining relationship with their faculty mentor, have strongly enriched and productive research experiences, and usually assume leadership roles in their research groups and departments as they progress toward graduation. Furthermore, the mentoring relationship that is established between a student and a faculty member is particularly effective at affirming the integration of that student into the culture of science. The highly significant benefits of undergraduate research are discussed further in Chapter 5.

While many institutions work hard to include all rising seniors in research programs, there is also a history of success with moving talented students into the laboratory at an early stage of their academic career. The committee believes that such relationships are important for all students and would be particularly meaningful for young women and students of color as they begin their journey into research and advanced science courses.

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