Academic journal article American Economist

Creating Quality Undergraduate Research Programs in Economics: How, When, Where (and Why)

Academic journal article American Economist

Creating Quality Undergraduate Research Programs in Economics: How, When, Where (and Why)

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Undergraduate research (UR) is a growing movement in higher education. It is embraced at all types of institutions and is increasingly prevalent across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. While it has been virtually omnipresent in the sciences for decades, UR in economics is still in its infancy. A recent survey by McGoldrick (2008a) indicates that only a small fraction of economics departments consider UR an important goal for their undergraduate program. In fact, only 36 percent of programs surveyed reported the "ability to make an original contribution to the discipline" to be an important goal of their senior capstone or common experience.

While the case for UR has been articulated in other disciplines, economists by and large have yet to recognize the value of investing time and energy on UR in any kind of comprehensive way. (1) In this paper, we argue for the implementation of numerous types of UR that can benefit all economics students, not just those bound for graduate school. Fundamentally, UR helps students learn how knowledge is constructed in a discipline by offering them firsthand experience with the process. In this sense, UR can be thought of as an overarching pedagogical approach that individual faculty and entire departments can implement to better teach students the "economic way of thinking."

Even if one understands the potential value of UR in economics, it can be challenging to build a successful UR program. Casual empiricism suggests that many economists may be hesitant to get involved in UR because they do not know when to get students involved or where it is most appropriate to incorporate it into the curricula. For example, it is one thing to know that a research-based service-learning project is considered UR, but it is another to know when the project is going to work best. Moreover, what skills can students learn in such an experience that can be built on in subsequent UR experiences? We argue that quality UR requires more than good mentoring by a single passionate faculty member. It requires a department committed to the kinds of curricular development that provide students with the opportunity to build foundational skills in their earlier years.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a roadmap for faculty and departments to use in implementing meaningful UR experiences across the board. In the process, the paper makes several contributions to economists' understanding of UR. First, we develop a taxonomy of the various ways in which undergraduate economics majors can engage in meaningful research that develops critical thinking skills. These include: (1) course-based activities (e.g., shorter quantitative writing assignments, naturalistic observation, etc.); (2) course-based projects (e.g., semester-long service learning projects, term papers in econometrics, etc.); (3) capstone experiences (e.g., honors theses, senior seminar papers); and (4) collaborative research with faculty. Second, because the existence of multiple forms of UR is ultimately suggestive of a hierarchy based on knowledge, complexity and student independence, we create a developmental model of UR to guide the creation of new programs and improvement of existing ones. This includes the articulation of appropriate learning goals at each level of UR, including theoretical and methodological content, critical thinking, and research skills. The paper proceeds as follows: (1) in Section II we define exactly what we mean by undergraduate research and show how the steps of the research process can be directly linked to Hansen's (2006) list of proficiencies that all economics students should acquire as undergraduates; (2) in Section III, we develop our taxonomy of the basic types of research experiences and relate them to well-defined learning goals and objectives. We also detail many of the key characteristics of each activity that faculty need to consider when making pedagogical decisions; (3) in Section IV we conclude with a discussion of six concrete recommendations for departments designing new programs or improving existing ones. …

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