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Undergraduate research

Posted by Arjendu on January 23, 2008

Carleton has a Learning and Teaching Center that facilitates conversations about teaching issues on campus (though as one of my now emeritus colleagues once said, “What on earth do we do on campus except learn and teach — why do we need a Center for that?” But let it pass, let it pass). This Tuesday we had a visitor, Sandra Laursen, who spoke about undergraduate research and its benefits. It was mostly preaching to the choir — almost all the science faculty at Carleton work with undergraduate students and will be happy to tell you about how wonderful it is to see students flourish during, and as a result of, their research experiences. Irrespective, it was good to see a reasonably controlled study (interviews with those undergraduates who did research — both immediately after their research experience, and a follow-up sometime later, compared with those who did not do research, and also interviews with faculty) that tried to flesh out our anecdotal ideas.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that research experiences help students clarify their ideas about whether they want to go to grad school or not, it brings them immense amounts of confidence about their scientific abilities, they feel like they learn to think and work ‘like a scientist’, they understand the process of science a lot better as a result, and they love owning a project, however small a slice of the big picture it might be. All of these experiences are significantly better — on average — at small liberal arts colleges rather than at research Universities (not surprisingly again) even if the actual project may be more exciting at the latter.

The punch line was about what the benefits and costs were to the faculty who supervised it. The personal benefits are great — it is always an immense pleasure to see raw talent transform into seasoned thinking and to send these kids off to adventures in graduate school and beyond. It is less clear what the professional benefits are, on average, and the costs can be quite high.

It’s something the Anacapa Society has hashed over a few times, and let me summarize the main points. What it comes down to is that by the time you’ve trained an undergraduate to do something, you’ve probably put in about 5 times the amount of effort you would have had to if you wanted to do it yourself — particularly true for theorists, I think. Now this might be true of a graduate student as well, of course, but with a grad student, you get a pay-off: They are around for a lot longer after their training period to deliver on the training. There is far less opportunity for that kind of pay-off from undergraduates. So working with undergraduates on research should be understood as a lot of teaching, and a little bit of research.

One of the ways I’ve dealt with this issue is by having multiple balls in the air at all time — some are those I can only conceivably work on with colleagues, and some slower-moving or smaller ones where undergraduates can participate. Sometimes the projects with colleagues will deliver an opportunity for undergraduates to be able to deliver, and we jump on it, but that’s rare. Another way I deal with it is that I choose projects (particularly those with undergraduates) that don’t focus on detailed technicalities. Instead, I take a broader perspective, attempting to uncover the deeper ideas underlying the technicalities. Overall, I have to say that I’ve done all right so far —  but I’m not going to be one of those prolific theorists that Doug was talking about a few months ago!

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One Response to “Undergraduate research”

  1. Ken Wedding said

    You wrote: “…by the time you’ve trained an undergraduate to do something, you’ve probably put in about 5 times the amount of effort you would have had to if you wanted to do it yourself…”

    As a teacher for 35+ years, you have identified a basic truth about teaching. If you were purely a researcher, you wouldn’t put up with that inefficiency. But, as a teacher, that effort to result ratio is a given.

    My dad was a skilled woodworker, an accomplished clock repairer, a more than adequate electrician and auto mechanic (his hobbies). He had no tolerance for the inefficiencies of teaching. One of the results is that I know none of those skills. When I wanted to build book shelves, he asked me what design I wanted and built them. When I needed to put new shocks on my car, he let me jack up the rear end and then he did the job, etc., etc.

    As you say, teaching pays off in ways other than results. That’s one of the reasons why I try to stay in touch with former students. I am always pleased when they want to stay in touch with me.

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