One objective of undergraduate research is to give students a chance to participate in scientific inquiry the way science is actually practiced. While science has grown increasingly collaborative, undergraduate research remains largely confined to single institution studies. This means that most undergraduate research is not introducing students to a key piece of scientific practice.
One approach to solving this problem is collaborative research networks, through which faculty and undergraduates from different institutions can work on broader scale questions using shared protocols and shared data. The Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN), founded in 2010, addresses this problem by establishing a network of ecological researchers at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs). Although collaborative research networks like EREN offer PUI faculty and students increased research opportunities, there are also significant challenges to successfully implementing these projects, including the fact that projects may not fit easily into a single semester. We report challenges encountered, as well as strategies used to counter these challenges in the implementation of the EREN Decomposition of Terrestrial and Aquatic Invasive Species (DATIS) project. Decomposition is a good case study for an undergraduate ecology class because it is a long-term process and integrates all processes in an ecosystem.
Pre-/post-test data from undergraduates participating in EREN projects have indicated increased content knowledge and research skills (Simmons et al 2016). Though working on a multi-site, multi-disciplinary project poses logistical challenges, there are many inherent benefits for faculty development, student learning, and the field of science. In DATIS, aquatic and terrestrial ecologists train each other in skills of their respective subdisciplines. Similarly, student researchers collaborate by participating in data collection and peer-to-peer training both within and among sites. By participating in collaborative projects like these, undergraduates are being prepared to be better collaborators in their careers.
DATIS enables students to learn the process of science through hands-on work with a complex and engaging scientific question. Through hands-on research experiences students develop an understanding of the scientific process and see that hypotheses may result unexpected outcomes and lead to additional questions. Finally, research conducted by distributed networks of researchers is becoming more common and will play a major role in ecology in the future. By modeling this scientific approach in PUIs, we are preparing graduates who will have the tools and knowledge to create their own distributed research networks.