Undergraduate Research

The following reflection is one of six focusing on the importance of university research initially posted a decade ago. The following, modified modestly here, appeared on December 18, 2012.

Fifth in a Series on Research

Research and scholarly work at universities is usually thought of in the context of graduate studies. Certainly, graduate students engage in the preponderance of research teamed with professors: such action develops and replicates scholarly minds to impact the student experience for all at every level positively.

There is a trend among national research universities and liberal arts colleges to engage undergraduate students in research and creative enterprise increasingly. The importance of this commitment is demonstrated in many ways.

The U.S. News and World Report best colleges’ analysis includes institutions such as Caltech, Carleton, Carnegie Mellon, the College of Wooster and Dartmouth College as national leaders in creating and sustaining emphasis on research, scholarly and creative work for undergraduate students. While the top five institutions are prestigious, with smaller seats of study, the top 25 institutions include Ohio State, Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Nebraska and Virginia Tech, among others — big public institutions.

The tendency is undeniable. Good students at good universities desire this mentor-driven interaction and the challenges it creates. In 2002, Southern Illinois University Carbondale developed an undergraduate research assistantship program, funded at $800,000 a year, to support undergraduates in work related to their study area. At a pay rate exceeding minimum wage, deserving undergraduates worked with faculty or staff in a research/internship role to engage students in intellectual work, research and scholarly activity associated with their study interests. And pay some bills.

In a January 3, 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education piece, Needed: a National Strategy to Preserve Public Research Universities, Paul N. Courant, James J. Duderstadt and Edie N. Goldenberg missed the boat in citing important issues for research universities and public policy. They did not address research for undergraduates. The influx of international students to U.S. institutions comes in significant measure from secondary schools that treat students as the best U.S. universities treat undergraduates. And, we are, at great national expense, losing our edge. Creating intellectual challenges for undergraduates with diligent, individually directed, faculty-mentored discovery learning will improve international competitiveness for U.S. ideas.

James M. Gentile, President of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, suggested in Science Education: The Value of Undergraduate Research that the benefits of undergraduate research are high and getting higher, especially as the U.S. continues to lose ground in the international knowledge generation arena.

It would surprise no one that the Council on Undergraduate Research, a national organization of people and institutions numbering nearly 4,000 members, concurs: undergraduates engaging in research are better students and better campus citizens. The Journal of Undergraduate Research, published by the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame and edited by students from around the nation, evidences a remarkable quality of work.

Our universities’ research, scholarly and creative intensity will be more successful if institutions foster a better educational environment that reinforces the discovery and creative experience throughout the undergraduate curriculum. Students benefit from seeing a project from inception to completion rather than the typical experiences of a “snippet-based” approach to knowledge generation and learning in lecture halls and laboratories.

And this is not a one-way street. According to S.F. Chopin’s reflection in The Anatomical Record, faculty members get research ideas from students. Too frequently, research and scholarly work is portrayed as a benefit to the university because it generates cash flow or a means for tenure and promotion. Too bad.

And it is not a new idea. In 1899, 250 doctoral degrees were awarded in the U.S. In 1999, 400 institutions produced 40,000 PhDs, according to the National Science Foundation. In the 19th century, there were few graduate students to research with faculty. Undergraduates helped. In the U.S. post-World War II era, almost all research at universities had shifted toward graduate students. A lost opportunity for the best students to begin research in the early years of university life has been consigned to the collegiate cultural norm. Too bad.

Good undergraduate students contribute to faculty insight every day in our forward-looking universities. The best faculty members crave the chance to work with engaged undergraduates. They know the secret: In enlivened teaching, you always get more than you give. And that is good for everyone.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.

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