for STEM Students
SUCCESSES, CHALLENGES, AND OPPORTUNITIES
Committee on Strengthening Research Experiences
for Undergraduate STEM Students
James Gentile, Kerry Brenner, Amy Stephens, Editors
Board on Science Education
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Board on Life Sciences
Division on Earth and Life Studies
A Report of
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This study was supported by a contract between the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for the project.
International Standard Book Number-13: 978-0-309-45280-9
International Standard Book Number-10: 0-309-45280-5
Digital Object Identifier: https://doi.org/10.17226/24622
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017937426
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Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/24622.
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COMMITTEE ON STRENGTHENING RESEARCH EXPERIENCES FOR UNDERGRADUATE STEM STUDENTS
James Gentile (Chair), Hope College, Holland, MI
Ann Beheler, Collin County Community College, Frisco, TX
Janet Branchaw, University of Wisconsin–Madison, WI
Deborah Faye Carter, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA
Melanie Cooper, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Edward J. Coyle, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA
Sarah C.R. Elgin, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
Mica Estrada, University of California, San Francisco, CA
Eli Fromm, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA
Ralph Garruto, State University of New York, Binghamton, NY
Eric Grodsky, University of Wisconsin–Madison, WI
James Hewlett, Finger Lakes Community College, Canandaigua, NY
Laird Kramer, Florida International University, Miami, FL
Marcia C. Linn, University of California, Berkeley, CA
Linda A. Reinen, Pomona College, Claremont, CA
Heather Thiry, University of Colorado Boulder, CO
Kerry Brenner, Study Director
Jay Labov, Senior Scientist/Program Director for Biology Education, Board on Life Sciences
Amy Stephens, Program Officer (since December 2015)
Michael Feder, Senior Program Officer (until October 2015)
Miriam Scheiber, Program Assistant
Charles Morgan, Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow (Spring 2016)
BOARD ON SCIENCE EDUCATION
Adam Gamoran (Chair), William T. Grant Foundation (president), New York, New York
Melanie Cooper, Department of Chemistry, Michigan State University
Rodolfo Dirzo, Department of Biology, Stanford University
Rush Holt, Jr., American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC
Matthew Krehbiel, Achieve, Inc., Washington, DC
Michael Lach, Urban Education Institute, University of Chicago
Lynn S. Liben, Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University
Cathy Manduca, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College
John Mather, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
Tonya Matthews, Michigan Science Center, Detroit, MI
Brian Reiser, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University
Marshall “Mike” Smith, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford, CA
Roberta Tanner, Retired Physics Teacher, Thompson School District, Loveland, Colorado
Suzanne Wilson, Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut
Heidi Schweingruber, Director
BOARD ON LIFE SCIENCES
James Collins (Chair), School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University
Nancy Connell, Department of Medicine, New Jersey Medical School
Joseph Ecker, Genetics and Plant Biology Laboratory, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA
Sarah C.R. Elgin, Department of Biology, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
Linda Griffith, Biological and Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Richard Johnson, Global Helix LLC, Bethesda, MD
Judith Kimble, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Medical Genetics, University of Wisconsin–Madison, WI
Mary Maxon, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA
Jill Porter Mesirov, Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Karen Nelson, J. Craig Venter Institute, Rockville, MD
Claire Pomeroy, Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, New York, New York
Mary Power, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA
Margaret Riley, Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA
Lana Skirboll, Academic and Scientific Affairs, Sanofi, Washington, DC
Janis Weekes, Department of Biology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Frances Sharples, Director
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I have had the privilege and honor to be involved in undergraduate research throughout my more than 50-year career in science. I did research as an undergraduate, and I was fortunate to be a research mentor to more than 100 undergraduate students as a professor at a liberal arts college. As a departmental chair and academic dean, I hired and mentored faculty colleagues, assisting them in developing their own undergraduate research mentoring talents. As a foundation president, I was charged with leading an organization whose mission included sustaining and creating programs that supported institutions, faculty, and students engaged in undergraduate research.
As an undergraduate student at a small liberal arts college, I was initially focused on “fast tracking” toward medical school and a career as a practitioner of the healing arts. Along the way I met an outstanding professor who convinced me to take the opportunity to work with him and a team of a few other students on an ecology-focused research project. The summer research experience and science adventure involving hands-on science learning was eye opening and motivating for me. That adventure in science—and the amazing empowerment of discovering something known by no one else at that time and discussing those results with faculty both on and off campus in a collegial and professional manner—empowered and convinced me to pursue graduate school (instead of medical school) and look toward a career as a science educator and scholar.
The value of research is not merely intuitive, and it goes well beyond the fact that undergraduate laboratory work encourages graduate work. Undergraduate research is in itself the purest form of both faculty teaching
and student learning. The research involvement not only deepens student learning in both the content and context of science but also promotes collaborations with faculty members and other student colleagues in a manner that builds and sustains a community of scholars who have the confidence to both ask the “What if?” questions in science and then engage in the exciting journey to find the answers.
The evolution, interest in, and adaptation of undergraduate research experiences (UREs) by all types of institutions (two- and four-year colleges and universities) have grown substantially, particularly so in the past two decades. Furthermore, expansion of UREs beyond the sciences to the broader academic community has grown significantly, adding to a new ecology of teaching, learning, and research that is currently embraced by increasing numbers of institutions across our nation. A report published by the Project Leap Project (under the auspices of the American Association of Colleges and Universities [AAC&U]) notes that many of the benefits of undergraduate research are aligned with three of the essential learning outcomes espoused by the AAC&U: intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning. Undergraduate research embraces and promotes precisely the suite of experiences that have the potential to transform the way students perceive and understand what they are learning and how it is applied in authentic, real-world situations.1
Faculty at all categories of academic institution are working to improve mechanisms and pathways for embedding UREs into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, as well as expanding undergraduate research opportunities to students. These efforts cut across disciplines and include both mentored experiences with professors and course-embedded research that is a more formal part of the curriculum. Multiple benefits have been noted or claimed for students engaged in undergraduate research—both personal and professional. Personal benefits may include increased self-confidence, independence, readiness for the next level of challenge, and ability to tolerate obstacles. Professional benefits may include gaining both experience that will advance career opportunities and skills such as enhanced critical thinking. UREs may provide opportunities for developing intellectual tools that encourage students to always ask questions as they seek to understand, and these experiences may allow students to build upon the answers in ways that enhances their education. This report provides perspective and insight into impact on students engaged in apprentice-style undergraduate research with faculty mentors, as well as educational impacts for students who participate in course-embedded UREs.
UREs can add an important dimension to undergraduate STEM education, in particular providing students with an opportunity to test and reaffirm their interest in a STEM career. This report by a committee appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine provides unique and informed insight into the “educational value-added” that accrues to students engaged in undergraduate research either through a faculty-mentored research experience in a laboratory or in the field, through active engagement in research that was embedded within a course, or other forms of UREs.
James Gentile, Chair
Committee on Strengthening Research Experiences for Undergraduate STEM Students
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This report represents the work of thousands of individuals, not only those who served on the committee, wrote papers for it, and participated in the committee’s open sessions, but also those who conducted and were the subjects of the research on which the committee’s conclusions and recommendations are based. We recognize their invaluable contributions to our work.
This report was made possible by the important contributions of the National Science Foundation (NSF). We particularly thank our program officer Dawn Rickey and Susan Singer (division director, NSF Division of Undergraduate Education).
Members of the committee benefited from discussion and presentation by many individuals who participated in our three fact-finding meetings.
- At the first meeting, different perspectives were presented on undergraduate research experiences (UREs), existing work to build upon, sources to evaluate, and the changing URE landscape. Presenters included Beth Ambos (Council on Undergraduate Research), David Asai (Howard Hughes Medical Institute), and Jo Handelsman (Office of Science and Technology Policy).
- At the second meeting, the following topics were explored:
- Institutional-level data gathering and analysis. Presenters included Stephany Hazel (George Mason University), Marco Molinaro (University of California, Davis), and Bethany Usher (George Mason University).
- Institutional change. Presenters included Paul Hernandez (West Virginia University) and Mitch Malachowski (University of San Diego).
- Additional perspectives and commentary on presentations. Presenters included Erin Dolan (The University of Texas at Austin) and Tuajuanda Jordan (St. Mary’s College of Maryland).
- The third meeting included three panels of subject matter experts:
- Panel 1 discussed UREs in mathematical sciences. Panelists included Michael Dorff (Brigham Young University), Suzanne Weekes (Worcester Polytechnic University), and Michal Wolf (Rice University).
- Panel 2 discussed faculty perspectives on undergraduate research. Panelists included Ariel Anbar (Arizona State University), Tracy Johnson (University of California, Los Angeles), and Sandra Laursen (University of Colorado Boulder).
- Panel 3 discussed engineering perspectives on undergraduate research. Panelists included Lisa Benson (Clemson University) and Ann Saterbak (Rice University).
The committee is very grateful for the efforts of the three authors who prepared background papers on specific topics for the committee’s use in drafting the report:
- Erin Dolan, on current knowledge and future directions of course-based UREs;
- Christine Pfund, on the role and impact of mentoring on UREs; and
- Linda Blockus, on the co-curricular model of the URE.
This report has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making its published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the study charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the deliberative process. We thank the following individuals for their review of this report: Cristina H. Amon, Mechanical Engineering, University of Toronto; Gita Bangera, RISE Learning Institute, Bellevue College; Sara E. Brownell, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University; Thomas R. Cech, BioFrontiers Institute, University of Colorado Boulder; Michael Dorff, Department of Mathematics, Brigham Young University; Paul R. Hernandez, Department of Learning Sciences and Human Development, College of Education and Human Services, West Virginia University; Cathy
A. Manduca, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College; Maria Ruiz-Primo, School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado Denver; David W. Schaffer, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin–Madison; Gabriela C. Weaver, Center for Teaching and Faculty Development, University of Massachusetts Amherst; and Huntington F. Willard, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Although the reviewers listed above provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the content of the report nor did they see the final draft of the report before its release. The review of this report was overseen by Joseph Krajcik, Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University, and Bruce Alberts, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California, San Francisco. They were responsible for making certain that an independent examination of this report was carried out in accordance with institutional procedures and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final content of this report rests entirely with the authoring committee and the institution.
Thanks are also due to the project staff. Kerry Brenner of the Board on Science Education directed the study and played a key role in the report drafting process. Amy Stephens (program officer for the Board on Science Education) stepped in to help with the study in the middle and was immensely helpful with organizing the report and revising the writing. Joanna Roberts managed the administrative tasks associated with getting the project started. Mary Ghitelman managed the first meeting’s logistical and administrative needs. Miriam Scheiber managed the rest of the study’s logistical and administrative needs, along with manuscript preparation. Jay Labov (senior advisor for education and communication with the Teacher Advisory Council) contributed to the writing and provided guidance throughout the course of the project. Michael Feder (former program officer with the Board on Science Education) helped to get the project started on the right foot. Heidi Schweingruber (director of the Board on Science Education) provided thoughtful advice and many helpful suggestions throughout the entire study. We are also grateful to two Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Fellows: Charlie Morgan provided many helpful and enthusiastic contributions during the initial report writing process, and Ryan Stowe assisted with information gathering at the start of the project.
Staff of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education also provided help: Robert Katt substantially improved the readability of the report; Kirsten Sampson Snyder expertly guided the report through the report review process; and Yvonne Wise masterfully guided the report through production.
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