Education Feature

Mentored Undergraduate Research in the Geosciences

Research programs are strengthened when students and faculty collaborate to build new knowledge. Here are five best practices in mentored undergraduate research that transcend institutions.

By , Meagen Pollock, Greg Wiles, and Mark Wilson

There is little argument about the merits of undergraduate research, but it can seem like a complex, resource-intensive endeavor [e.g., Laursen et al., 2010; Lopatto, 2009; Hunter et al., 2006]. Although mentored undergraduate research can be challenging, we have found that research programs are strengthened when students and faculty collaborate to build new knowledge. Faculty members in the geology department at The College of Wooster have conducted mentored undergraduate research with their students for more than 60 years and have developed a highly effective program that enhances the teaching, scholarship, and research of our faculty and provides life-changing experiences for our students.

Other colleges and universities have also implemented successful mentored undergraduate research programs in the geosciences. For instance, the 18 Keck Geology Consortium schools, Princeton University, and other institutions have been recognized for their senior capstone experiences by U.S. News & World Report.

Each institution is unique, and one institution’s system of undergraduate research cannot be imposed on another. In this feature we suggest best practices in mentored undergraduate research that transcend institutional culture. These common themes are successful in spite of institutional differences in size and financing, and they can be used by single faculty members or entire departments or adapted as institution-wide initiatives.

Mentored Undergraduate Research at The College of Wooster

In this feature we differentiate the Wooster model of mentored undergraduate research from other forms of research activities. According to the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), a national organization representing hundreds of colleges and universities, undergraduate research is “an inquiry or an investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” Mentored undergraduate research refers to the student-centered approach of one-on-one collaboration between a student and faculty mentor that uniquely blends professionalism with personal interactions. The key is faculty immersion into students’ academic and scholarly successes. Mentors emphasize accomplishing tasks together as collaborators and use best practice pedagogies in the teaching of scholarly research methods and ways of thinking.

The College of Wooster has been featured in several venues as an exemplary liberal arts college for undergraduate research (Association of American Colleges and Universities, U.S. News & World Report, and Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope). Wooster established its Independent Study (IS) program in 1947, and since that time, every Wooster graduate has completed an original research project. Wooster’s IS program is not an honors program; it is a graduation requirement for each student. The process is similar to a graduate research project but with more faculty guidance. The structure focuses on a year-long study, although most departments begin the process earlier, during a student’s junior year. Over that time, students enroll in three consecutive courses that are treated as weekly hour-long tutorials. IS culminates with a final written thesis and public presentation. Because all departments participate in the IS process, the program dominates Wooster’s culture and is celebrated each year in a community-wide senior IS symposium. In the geology department, which has 4 professors and averages 12 undergraduate majors per class, most student projects are presented at national meetings, and many are published in peer-reviewed journals.

Suggestions on How to Succeed at Mentored Undergraduate Research

On the basis of our experiences, we outline five fundamental best practices for successful mentored undergraduate research. This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide for conducting an undergraduate research program. Additional resources for more information about initiating, sustaining, and supporting undergraduate research are listed at the end of this feature.

1. Pedagogical Preparation Within the Curriculum. The mission of IS forms the foundation of our institution’s curriculum, an intentional relationship generated by focused curriculum mapping. At Wooster, curriculum mapping began by establishing institutional graduate qualities that were consistent with the mission of the college and the IS program. Using the graduate qualities as a guide, the Wooster geology department defined its learning objectives and designed its courses to concentrate on specific outcomes. (The Wooster geology curriculum map is included in the online supplement to this feature.) The result is a curriculum that reflects and emphasizes the components of mentored undergraduate research. The department’s curriculum allows faculty members to be purposeful in their use of various teaching practices within a framework of thoughtful sequencing and scaffolding. Conceptual and skills-based learning objectives are ordered deliberately so that courses methodically move students from concrete to abstract concepts and from simple to complex skills. For instance, in the introductory courses, students learn to collect field data by setting up their notebooks and recording observations under the guidance of an instructor. Students develop independence in their data collection skills in higher-division courses, where they are provided with a rubric for their field notebooks and are responsible for choosing the information that needs to be recorded and determining an appropriate format. Finally, in the IS program, field notebooks are not formally evaluated, but students apply their data collection skills to create comprehensive records of field data that fully support their senior research. The curriculum, therefore, provides a structure that initiates and develops the understanding of major geologic concepts and the application of research skills, which are eventually synthesized through a student-centered, mentored undergraduate research experience.

Wooster geology students recognize that the mapped curriculum makes them better prepared for research in their junior and senior years. As one student remarked, “At some point, you learn to do it by yourself, and junior IS was that point.” Junior IS is one example of how research preparation is built into our curriculum. Geology majors spend the spring semester of their junior year reviewing literature and learning field and lab techniques so that they can write and present a proposal for their senior IS research. Students earn a full course credit for their work and typically meet one-on-one with their faculty mentors for an hour each week, although research groups may meet in lieu of or in addition to individual meetings. This semester of preparation is critical for their senior research experiences, as it is the time when they develop good hypotheses that can be tested with the department’s resources and limited time. They also prepare for summer field and lab work, learning how to ask questions, make observations, and gather information that will drive their projects forward.

For other institutions, incorporating undergraduate research into the curriculum need not be an institution-wide initiative to be successful. The key is for faculty to implement pedagogies that facilitate the development of research skills. Faculty could use guided discovery problems, service learning, field labs, or experience-based environmental projects. For example, an introductory geology class could partner with a chemistry course in a study of local drinking water quality. For additional specific teaching strategies, see the online module on using undergraduate research as a teaching practice, listed in the additional resources below.

2. Faculty-Student Interactions. We have observed that mentored undergraduate research is most successful when the typical hierarchical faculty-student relationship is modified into one of trusted collaboration. Faculty and students should be interdependent on one another, creating an exchange of responsibility and trust that is cooperative and collegial. This interplay improves the research experience by increasing student ownership of the project. Furthermore, when students feel like collaborators, they move more quickly from being concrete learners (i.e., good at understanding practical information) to being formal learners (i.e., able to think about complex and abstract concepts) and are thus better able to contribute to the knowledge base of a discipline [e.g., Hunter et al., 2006].

One way to establish a trusting relationship is to discuss your expectations with your students early in the research process. Consider creating a syllabus for the research experience. Let students know how you expect them to contribute to the project, which might include such things as finding new articles or creating figures. If they will be formally evaluated (as they are at Wooster), include the grading criteria or rubrics. Also, agree on the frequency and medium of communication (e.g., e-mails, meetings). Do not forget to let students know what they can expect from you in return. Faculty should offer to do such things as provide thoughtful feedback, return drafts in a timely manner, and be prepared for meetings. Clear expectations promote collegial trust, which is built only when a faculty advisor and student do not disappoint each other.

Successful collaborative relationships rely on a favorable faculty demeanor. Faculty must be excited, approachable, open to new ideas, and accessible. One-on-one weekly meetings work well, allowing students to gain a depth of knowledge in a collaborative and supportive environment. Each meeting should feel safe and comfortable, engendering a free exchange between the student and faculty mentor. Early in the research process, when reading journal articles, give students tips about where to begin, and ask them to prepare lists of key points and questions before discussing the article. Later in the project, when discussing results, consider having students bring written descriptions or talking points in addition to their figures. Directed meetings will help students contribute to the discussion and more quickly assume the role of a collaborator.

Professional, yet personal, mentoring is what distinguishes mentored undergraduate research from other research activities. Good faculty mentors provide guidance and support for their research students while holding them accountable for their work. Such mentoring can be accomplished in the field or lab, during weekly meetings, or through frequent formal or informal community-building activities in a social and gender-equitable setting (e.g., coffee or ice cream can work wonders). It is the personal mentoring that instills a sense of self and purpose in students and makes the undergraduate research experience a significant event in their lives.

3. The Importance of Real-Time Scientific Discussion. A true student-faculty collaboration means that no step is taken in the research process without the student so that he or she participates at every level, from hypothesis formation and data collection through synthesis and interpretation. Real-time scientific discussions are essential; these discussions minimize the one-way flow of information (from faculty to student) and promote a greater interdependence in the research process. Students are eager to compare faculty notes to their own and are more willing to contribute when they realize that their input is valued. In the field (Figure 1), for example, we find that it is important for the faculty member to verbalize observations and thoughts in real time (e.g., “I wonder if that scarp might be the continuation of our fault.”). It is equally important to ask the students questions (e.g., “What do you think we should do next?”) and to respond respectfully to their ideas. We also schedule time in the field to process data and write drafts of the results. This not only organizes and archives the data for quick retrieval after fieldwork but also allows for conversation about the data and students’ interpretation, laying the groundwork for the collegial type of discussions that naturally follow during the subsequent academic year.

Students benefit from real-time conversations with their faculty advisors, but they grow as scientists and communicators when they are engaged in the scientific community outside of their own research lab. When students present their work or collaborate with scientists outside of their departments, they contemplate the uncertainties and the next steps in their research, become more self-confident, and take more ownership of the project. During the IS process, Wooster geology majors give three presentations to faculty and their peers as part of the departmental seminar series. Nearly all of our students participate in our annual campus-wide senior IS symposium, and most of our students present at regional or national conferences. Ultimately, having students work with external scientists or present at professional meetings affirms that their projects are worthy scientific contributions. Such experiences offer students enriching discussions with experts in their own subdisciplines and often act as a springboard to graduate school or employment.

4. The Balance Between Guidance and Independent Research. There is no “cookie-cutter advising” when it comes to mentored undergraduate research. Faculty mentors will find in their students a variety of research confidence levels and a range of learning styles, making the time that it takes to move students from simple to complex skills different for each individual. Likewise, there is a spectrum of advising styles, ranging between the “helicopter” mentor, who hovers over students, and the “free-range” mentor, who gives students more freedom. So faculty mentors must balance their need to intervene proactively with the student’s need for independence.

One way to attain that unique balance is to allow students to set their own deadlines. At the beginning of the project, outline the hard deadlines, such as the thesis due date, the last day they can submit drafts for review, or the deadline for a conference abstract. Then allow the students to determine what needs to be done and when according to their own schedules. Suggest that they take into account other academic (i.e., exam dates) and personal (i.e., “the big game”) events. Encourage them to dedicate specific days and times to working on research. Offer advice in deciding what tasks must be accomplished, and guide them in establishing the order of the tasks and their likely duration. The key is to allow some flexibility but to hold the students accountable. Make a schedule visible and accessible, and refer to it in each weekly meeting, keeping track of when they have and have not met their goals. This process provides many opportunities for faculty mentors to assist students who need more direction while allowing independent students to embrace the freedom and responsibility of their own research.

5. The Power of Peer-to-Peer Instruction and Mentoring. Mentored undergraduate research encompasses more than expert-novice mentoring. We have found that peer mentoring can be empowering. Peer mentoring can promote self-confidence, enhance research interdependence, and encourage cohesive collaborative learning communities. A classic peer mentoring strategy is to pair experienced upper level students with novices to teach field or lab techniques. A more elaborate example is the group research project that involves multiple students and several faculty advisors working toward a common goal, with each student’s individual research making a scholarly contribution to the overall research objectives. In a group field experience, for example, give students the chance to be a leader on their portion of the project. Require the student leader to make critical decisions on daily research aims and to instruct other students on the details of their particular project. This group dynamic builds confidence with all student leaders and forms a solid camaraderie among the research group while promoting scientific, student-centered cooperative learning.

Resources Available to Faculty

The following resources may provide helpful information on conducting and supporting mentored undergraduate research:

  1. The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR). CUR offers a variety of publications on best practices in undergraduate research, such as its “How To” series. CUR also offers workshops at professional meetings, including a workshop on establishing an undergraduate research program for early-career and future faculty to be held at the 2012 AGU Fall Meeting.
  2. The College of Wooster Geology Department. The Web site describes the department’s courses and IS program, including examples of projects and evaluation rubrics. The department’s blog is a current and active record of IS experiences in geology.
  3. Undergraduate Research as a Teaching Practice. This online module was developed through a collaboration between CUR and the On the Cutting Edge program for geoscience faculty development. It includes information on mentoring, examples of how to incorporate research into the curriculum, assessment strategies, and more.
  4. Pathways to Science. This mentoring manual by the Institute for Broadening Participation contains a useful section describing what undergraduates might expect from the research experience.

Acknowledgments

This paper was improved by the thoughtful comments of the Wooster students who participated in the 2012 Utah research project.

References

Hunter, A.-B., S. Laursen, and E. Seymour (2006), Becoming a scientist: The role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal, and professional development. Sci. Educ., 91, 36–74.

Laursen, S., A.-B. Hunter, E. Seymour, H. Thirty, and G. Melton (2010), Undergraduate Research in the Sciences: Engaging Students in Real Science, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Calif.

Lopatto, D. (2009), Science in Solution: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning, Res. Corp. for Sci. Adv., Tucson, Ariz.

Author Information

Shelley Judge, Meagen Pollock, Greg Wiles, and Mark Wilson, Department of Geology, The College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio; E-mail: [email protected]

Citation: Judge, S., M.Pollock, G.Wiles and M.Wilson, (2012), Mentored undergraduate research in the geosciences, Eos Trans. AGU, 93(36), 345–346, doi:10.1029/2012EO360001.

© 2012. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.