Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Undergraduate Research Experiences from a Longitudinal Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Undergraduate Research Experiences from a Longitudinal Perspective

Article excerpt

The role of undergraduate research in science education has been recognized by the National Science Foundation (NSF; 1989) as "one of the most powerful instructional tools" for providing valued hands-on experience and encouraging student retention in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This view was supported by members of the academic community in a recent issue of Science, which focused specifically on undergraduate education (Clery 2007; Leite 2007; Mervis 2007). Although it is often accepted as common wisdom that undergraduate research experiences (UREs) benefit participants, much of the literature on the topic is from studies with samples commonly limited to a single institution or program (e.g., Hathaway, Nagda, and Gregerman 2002; Kardash 2000; Kremer and Bringle 1990; Lopatto 2004, 2007; Nagda et al. 1998). (Note: In the scope of this study, a URE refers to any hands-on research experience prior to graduate school independent of research type and/or funding agencies.) The perception of undergraduate research as a key component in postsecondary science curricula is widely endorsed in institutions of higher education (e.g., Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour 2007; Russell, Hancock, and McCullough 2007). However, because of increasing accountability to external funding agencies and university administrators, rigorous assessment of the efficacy of these research experiences has taken on a role of central importance (Harvey and Thompson 2009; Kardash 2000; Lopatto 2003).

Recent studies have attempted to systematically establish the effectiveness of UREs as a tool for enhancing the educational experiences of undergraduate students in STEM fields. Russell, Hancock, and McCullough (2007) surveyed approximately 4,500 URE participants who reported increases in both understanding how to conduct a research project and confidence in research skills. Lopatto (2004) surveyed 1,135 undergraduate students at 41 institutions participating in research funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). In an initial and follow-up survey nine months later, respondents indicated significant gains on 20 factors, including the learning of laboratory techniques and understanding the theoretical basis of the research process (Lopatto 2007). Work by Seymour and colleagues (e.g., Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour 2007; Seymour et al. 2004) examined the perceived yields of the apprenticeship research model on student learning at four liberal arts institutions with well-established URE programs. The researchers conducted interviews with students and faculty, which revealed considerable agreement in the improvement of students' cognitive and practical research skills within the context of genuine research experiences. In other research, alumni retrospectives across 75 majors indicated that research participation promoted higher gains in knowledge, research, and laboratory skills; familiarity with theory and procedures; and scientific discourse capabilities than were found within comparison nonparticipant groups (Bauer and Bennett 2003). Kardash (2000) found positive correlation between learning gains and retention associated with undergraduate research of 57 HHMI interns. Kremer and Bringle (1990) interviewed 22 research participants in an intensive one-on-one research psychology program and found an increase in research skills and student interest in the research process. Despite inherent challenges commonly allied with undergraduate education (i.e., financial considerations and the academic and social cultures of some fields), further research has pointed to the positive associations of URE participation with increases in the following areas: degree completion in undergraduate science programs (Nagda et al. 1998), academic success (Hearn 1987; Nnadozie, Ishiyama, and Chon 2001), pursuit of postgraduate education (Downs 2010; Hathaway, Nagda, and Gregerman 2002), and the retention and promotion of underrepresented groups in employment within STEM and professional fields (Barlow and Villarejo 2004; Hathaway, Nagda, and Gregerman 2002; Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour 2007; Lopatto 2004; Nagda et al. …

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