Tuesday, August 5, 2008 - 2:30 PM

COS 38-4: Undergraduate research in ecology: Implications and future directions

Lara B. Pacifici, University of Georgia


Undergraduate research (UR) in the sciences has been gaining momentum over the past 20 years. It serves as a bridge between science education and science research. It is even seen by some universities as an educational requisite to entry into graduate programs. Noted benefits of UR include increased conceptual understanding of science, self-efficacy, increased pursuit of science degrees and careers. UR in ecology occurs at many colleges and universities around the country and around the world. Published accounts of the benefits and challenges of UR in ecology, however, are relatively few compared to UR in chemistry, microbiology, and engineering. To successfully incorporate UR in ecology, we must examine present experiences in UR and apply the analysis to improve future UR in ecology programs. I reviewed the literature on UR in ecology and in other fields of science and performed a meta-analysis of the types of UR experiences and the outcomes of the UR experiences. I also contacted the ecology department in each of the land grant universities in the United States and asked about current UR opportunities in ecology at their institution. I collected data on the number and extent of opportunities available.


The overwhelming majority of publications on UR in the sciences cite significant benefits gained by participating students. Students gain not only increased content area knowledge, but also an understanding of what it means to be a research scientist. In addition, UR experiences give students an idea of what it would be like to conduct scientific research as a graduate student or as a career. Consequently, many students continue on to graduate school in a science discipline and hope to become a research scientist in the future. The majority of land grant universities do have opportunities for undergraduates to participate in ecological research. The lack of published data on UR in ecology is disappointing because the potential for impact is great. Evaluations of ecology UR programs at colleges and universities could provide valuable insight that could improve existing UR programs and influence other institutions to develop solid UR programs. UR can be an invaluable opportunity that can have a profound effect on a student’s future. The field of ecology should make quality UR a priority. To do so means not only implementing, but also evaluating and communicating the impacts of UR. Through the implementation, evaluation, and communication of UR we are fostering the next generation of ecologists.