Coupling graduate mentorship training with undergraduate research in a field context
Graduate programs are increasingly recognizing the importance of explicit mentorship training for future faculty members. However, few students receive training specific to the unique practical and pedagogical challenges of mentoring in a field research context. This is problematic given that fieldwork and field courses are a common component of the responsibilities of academics in ecology and environmental science disciplines.
In conjunction with the Cornell Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning program, we developed a novel course that coupled mentorship training for PhD students with supervision of inquiry-based undergraduate ecological research projects in a nine-day field course. For the graduate mentors, the goals of the course addressed handling the logistics of large field courses, facilitating student inquiry and independence, and developing effective mentor-mentee relationships. For undergraduates, the course was designed to enable students to use natural history observations to develop novel hypotheses, successfully apply the scientific method and collaborate in a group research context. To leverage the complementary nature of these goals, a feedback framework was set up so that both parties could facilitate each other’s ongoing skills development. Pre- and post-surveys were used to assess the efficacy of this approach and to identify major learning outcomes.
Pre-course surveys indicated that graduate mentors (spanning students both early and late in their programs) had no formal training in mentoring or field leadership, despite identifying an academic career track and being field research-focused. Along with uncertainty about logistical preparations, mentors identified keeping students engaged and fostering independence as the mentoring aspects they were least confident in. To address this, mentors were involved in trip planning, and instructors and mentors worked together to compile a tool kit of resources (including informational handouts) for future use. Other mentor training encompassed strategies for using formative assessment to gauge student progress, balancing group dynamics, and creating a sense of scientific authenticity for students.
Undergraduate participants identified ‘forming testable hypotheses’ as their weakest research skill. To facilitate confidence in hypothesis building, students were encouraged to familiarize themselves with the research context by sharing presentations on the history, biology and environment of the field site prior to the trip. In the field, preparation included guided exploration and time for independent observation, culminating in design of a short group research project overseen by a mentor.
Preliminary student feedback indicated that the coupled-training approach was highly effective in achieving the specified learning goals and promoting student satisfaction.