Ten years of student gains from undergraduate research at the Harvard Forest Summer Research Program in Ecology
Undergraduate research experiences (UREs) in STEM fields (e.g. REU Sites) provide many students with their first hands-on experience in doing real research. The Harvard Forest Summer Research Program in Ecology (HF-SRPE) annually supports 20-30 undergraduates from diverse backgrounds, each of whom participates in 11 weeks of mentor-supervised research. Projects focus on measuring, understanding, and forecasting effects of natural disturbances, human activities, and global climatic change on forest ecosystems. Students also participate in seminars, educational workshops, and career/graduate school panels. Here, we present ten years of data on HF-SRPE participants to evaluate the short- and long-term impacts and outcomes of this URE on our students.
Assessing the impacts and outcomes of UREs requires pre- and post-participation data, and long-term tracking of student participants, but few programs collect such data. In fact, a recent analysis of UREs (Linn et al. 2015, Science 347:627) suggested that available data are insufficient to determine whether students’ future “success” in science is improved by their participation in a URE. Since 2006 Harvard Forest has administered pre- and post-program student evaluation surveys to assess (1) acquisition and enhancement of scientific research skills; (2) satisfaction with the URE learning experience; and (3) post-program plans for STEM education and career development. An annual survey assesses long-term STEM education and career trajectories of HF-SRPE alumni.
HF-SRPE is an intensive, immersive research and education experience that: generates reliable data that students and mentors present at regional and national meetings and co-publish in peer-reviewed journals; and encourages participants to pursue graduate or professional degrees in STEM fields. Comparisons of pre- and post-survey data indicate that students make substantial gains in the core skills of conducting research, analyzing data, and presenting findings, and working as part of a research team. Each year, half of the students self-report a change in post-graduate plans. Short-term responses are belied by long-term impacts, however. For example, most students who report at the beginning of the summer that they plan to attend graduate school in ecology then report at the end of the summer that they intend to study or work in non-environmental fields after graduation. However, longitudinal data on alumni (2001-2014) reveal that nearly 90% of our participants pursue advanced degrees in ecology/environmental fields. Our experience suggests that carefully-designed pre- and post-survey instruments can adequately and accurately evaluate the impact of a URE, and that the HF-SRPE has had positive effects on hundreds of students.