Friday, August 6, 2010

PS 100-86: PhD-instructed undergraduate research: More than an undergraduate education and doctoral dissertation

Dirac Twidwell, William E. Rogers, and Steve Whisenant. Texas A&M University


Undergraduate research provides undeniable benefits, including enhanced analytical reasoning, critical-thinking and creativity, better preparation for graduate school or a career, improved technical skills, increased confidence to conduct research and contribute to science, greater retention of minority students in graduate school and career pathways related to science, among others.  To this end, numerous programs have arisen from major funding agencies to support undergraduate research.  Yet even with widespread funding efforts, insufficient funds and mentoring constraints continue to prevent broader participation in research by the majority of undergraduate students.  Traditional approaches to undergraduate research have followed the graduate student – research model, thus proving costly.  Undergraduates often work on stipends, take-up laboratory or office space, increase demand for equipment and supplies, and demand attention and time from professors.  Funding from agencies, while helping to offset costs of the traditional approach for a limited number of students, may inadvertently reinforce the cost-prohibitive perception of undergraduate research by setting the bar at thousands to tens-of-thousands ($US) per student.  If this is the cost per student, how are academic departments to financially support undergraduate research for all or even a majority of undergraduate students?  


To provide solutions to these issues, we initiated a PhD-led course on undergraduate research, based on a hierarchical, pseudo-business framework that can be integrated into departmental curriculum.  In this framework, undergraduates serve as apprentices, doctoral students serve as supervisors, and the professor serves as the CEO.  The aim of this course is to provide undergraduate students with the training needed to succeed as researchers, notably an introduction to scientific principles, hypothesis testing, experimental design, sampling or measurement, statistical analysis and interpretation, technical writing, literature review, and publication.  We outline the benefits of this course with respect to funding requirements per student, undergraduate and graduate training, and research productivity, as well as highlight the challenges and limitations of implementing such an approach beyond an individual lab or department.  Even with these challenges, it is clear that such an approach can provide long-term benefits to the department, science, and society as a result of increasing the number of undergraduate students involved in research activities.