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Research experiences for all physics majors?

Posted by Melissa on June 29, 2009

As a member of the Physics and Astronomy Division of the Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR), over the past few months I’ve gotten several e-mails about the effort by CUR, the Society of Physics Students, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Physical Society Committee on Education to adopt a statement on undergraduate research. The CUR statement reads as follows, “We call upon this nation’s physics and astronomy departments to provide, as an element of best practice, all undergraduate physics and astronomy majors a significant research experience.” It is unclear that there is agreement about this proposal, particularly depending on what one means by “significant research experience.” Does significant research imply collaborative work with a faculty member that makes an original intellectual contribution to the discipline? Or can a significant research experience be something more independent that is original for the student, but perhaps not an original contribution to the discipline?

According to CUR, about 70% of undergraduate physics majors participate in a research experience. For those who are considering graduate school in physics, I think a research experience is a must. And I believe that every physics major who wants a research experience should be able to participate in one. Research experiences help retention, increase motivation, build confidence, and provide a sense of being part of the scientific community—all significant benefits.

From a scientific perspective, research experiences provide students opportunities that are hard to replicate in a standard curriculum. Arjendu has previously mentioned the four types of problem solving, and research experiences offer the opportunity for practicing innovative problem solving. Other objectives for research experiences include gaining exposure to project design, using advanced instrumentation, experimental techniques, and computational tools, engaging in data analysis, and learning to communicate complex ideas. However, in talking to students, research experiences vary widely from REU site to REU site and from lab to lab, and the quality of the experience is hit or miss. Although the best research experiences provide innovative problem solving experiences and intellectual ownership of a project, many aspects of the experience can be provided through careful design of the laboratory curriculum, including open-ended project work.

I’m happy to encourage students to pursue research experiences, but should we go beyond encouraging research experiences? Let’s assume for a minute that we aren’t considering issues of capacity or the costs for faculty. In an ideal world, should all physics majors be required to participate in a research experience beyond the curricular level? For those students who will continue in physics, research experiences are a critical first step in their careers. It’s important that not just the most motivated or the most enthusiastic students participate in research programs, as research experiences can be particularly valuable for those who are uncertain of their next steps. Although research experiences are beneficial for all students, I also want the physics major to be a big tent. For future medical professionals who are interested in spending the summer working at a health clinic, or future educators who want to teach as part of a summer science enrichment program, or for students who want to work for a family business, I’m uncomfortable saying that research is more important than exploring other interests and opportunities. And I don’t think most schools have the capacity to support research experiences for all majors during the academic year.

Should research be encouraged? Yes. Should it be required? That, I’m still considering.


5 Responses to “Research experiences for all physics majors?”

  1. […] at Confused on a Higher Level, Melissa has been thinking about undergraduate research: As a member of the Physics and Astronomy Division of the Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR), […]

  2. Animastryfe said

    I agree that research experience should be encouraged. Your sentence about how “every physics major who wants a research experience should be able to participate in one” reminds me of a question I’ve been thinking about: I know that undergraduate research is quite easy to get at most liberal arts colleges, but what about large universities, including very good ones such as UC Berkeley? If a student could get, say, 3 years worth of research experience at a liberal arts college, might he or she only be able to get 2 or even 1 year’s worth of experience at a large university?

  3. Alex Small said

    We are considering some of the issues raised in your post.

  4. Alex Small said

    Oops, forgot to include link.

  5. Melissa said

    With regards to the ease of getting research experience at a large research university as compared to a small liberal arts college, I am not familiar enough with the undergraduate experience at a large research university to know how easy it is to get such positions or the quality of those experiences, particularly because those labs have many additional layers of personnel (research associates, post-docs, graduate students).

    Alex, you make a good point in your blog post about considering how to include more research-like experiences in the curriculum. That involves thinking creatively about the lab curriculum at all levels as well as the existence and expectations of senior capstone experiences. I think these are all valuable things to consider. In the conversation about this topic, the terminology of “significant research experience” is problematic because different people have very different views of what this means, and for some this does not include curricular experiences.

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