Five undergraduate students, one graduate student, and two research associates unload equipment and supplies from the back of a car: coiled electrical resistivity cables, a metal control box, stainless-steel stakes, car batteries, tarps, 100 containers of table salt, and surveying equipment. The pile builds in the parking lot as they await a llama train to help transport the gear to the field site.
The llamas arrive in the back of a pickup truck. They are bedded down, and they peer sleepily over the side. We laugh as they shuffle down a ramp, spooked by an orange construction cone in the parking lot. Then we see that there are only three llamas; the fourth is recovering from an injury. The students don’t know this yet, but they will have to cover for the injured llama: Each student will be carrying 40 extra kilograms to the field site 6 kilometers away.
This group of students, all from Colorado State University (CSU), had signed up for a learning experience to gain insight into anthropogenic influences on the upper Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park [Rubin et al., 2012; Rathburn et al., 2013; Grimsley et al., 2016]. But shouldering the burden of a missing llama wasn’t the only noteworthy aspect of their experience.
The students were contributing to the success of our research project, an effort that for nearly a decade was focused heavily on graduate student research. Their presence marked the beginning of increased undergraduate student participation, made possible through a database where administrative personnel and faculty members could locate and recruit interested students to help with long-standing projects. By having different students come in and out of the project as needed, the project, in essence, became a local research hub.
Such research hubs, particularly for Earth and environmental sciences, are win-win. Students gain research experience, strengthen their ties to a cohort of fellow students, sustain their long-term commitment to geology, and cultivate their leadership skills as tomorrow’s natural resource professionals. At the same time, the university tangibly broadens the impacts of faculty research and fosters exciting opportunities in science while helping researchers fill their logistical human-power needs.
Creating a Research Hub
Field-based research is an effective way for students to learn [Mogk and Goodwin, 2012]. It provides a high-impact educational experience with lasting benefits for students. The Association of American Colleges and Universities cites undergraduate research as a “high-impact practice” because it relies on faculty interaction outside the classroom, promotes deep learning, and has been shown to have positive effects on students’ overall personal and academic development, which in turn leads to increased academic performance and student retention [Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005; Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007]. The experience of testing knowledge in different settings and preparing students to enter the workforce through developing field skills is a distinctive feature of a high-impact learning experience [Kuh, 2008].
It’s no surprise that at universities like CSU, many undergraduate students express interest in gaining research experience. But despite the value of student field-based research, both to the pupil and to the project, finding interested students and communicating with them can be challenging. University faculty often require students on short notice, and they may need them only for short-term assistance. It can be difficult for faculty at a large university to find the time and resources to locate and vet potential student researchers.
To address this challenge, students and faculty members at CSU take advantage of a strategic partnership with an academic success coordinator (ASC), a trained student affairs professional. Our ASC implemented a free online database through Google Forms, where students apply for department positions. The database easily matches faculty needs (field assistance, independent study, or research) with student interests.
Furthermore, the database was designed to encourage students from underrepresented populations by providing a clear pathway for them to indicate interest in department-sponsored opportunities. Such populations include first-generation college students and representatives of racial or ethnic minorities who may lack “cultural capital”—networking skills, knowledge of social conventions, and other assets that help them fit in—and knowledge of university systems that connect directly with high-impact practices.
A Successful Experiment
We found the local research hub model to be effective, low cost, and sustainable. Research at the upper Colorado River field site has created a hub for learning, mentoring, and collaboration. In total, the work has involved 87 students, 1 postdoc, 9 faculty members from CSU and 3 from other universities, 2 university research associates, and 12 other staff scientists from state, federal, and private agencies within Colorado’s Front Range.
Students have assisted with research in 1-day field outings with on-site training; multiday trips that required more intensive preparation and mentoring; and semester-long research projects for credit that involved analyzing, interpreting, and presenting their data. Students collected field data that included river flow and sediment transport measurements, channel geometry and bed grain size, and tree cores. They assisted with conductivity tracer tests, electrical resistivity and ground-penetrating radar surveys, and geomorphologic mapping.
Thanks to the online database, our project has seen a tenfold increase in undergraduate student involvement since 2015 and a 30% increase in the participation of first-generation college students and racial and ethnic minority students. In total, research activities at the hub have so far produced 4 peer-reviewed journal articles, 1 undergraduate and 7 graduate research presentations, and 16 professional meeting or seminar presentations.
In addition, the accessibility of the database has expanded beyond this project to include teaching and research opportunities for undergraduates. Six faculty members and more than 10 graduate students in our department have used the database to search for assistance on other projects. For the staff at Rocky Mountain National Park, the project has yielded citable journal articles, data that support other park initiatives, and public education for visitors through direct field contact and special presentations.
We expected the sole benefit of the field site database model to be more student research opportunities, so we were surprised by the myriad other experiences that arose. These included mentoring, peer learning, and such curricular and cocurricular activities as field course excursions to the site. Now there is a self-sustaining cycle of ongoing research, generation of new project ideas, mentoring, peer learning, and overall student engagement.
Adopting the Idea
Is this an appropriate and transferable model for other institutions? We think so. Admittedly, field research in a natural park is unique and exciting, which makes it easy to recruit graduate and undergraduate students, hire field assistants, and solicit volunteers. However, any field site that is close to a campus will work.
To replicate this model, we recommend that other universities do the following:
- identify local research sites and potential partners for access and funding
- partner with a student support professional (e.g., an ASC) to identify student and faculty needs
- develop an online application form detailing student interests
- promote and market the potential for using the database to students and faculty members via email and social media, in classes, and during meetings
Online application forms can be submitted using readily available resources (e.g., SurveyMonkey, Typeform, Google Docs, Dropbox). We modeled our form as a job application to give many students their first experience in professional resume preparation.
A First Taste at “Being Treated as an Actual Scientist”
Student participants have responded enthusiastically to their experience doing field research:
“Research on the upper Colorado River gave me a chance to apply the knowledge I gained in classes to the field,” one of our students told us. “It really deepened my understanding of geomorphology and made me realize that river systems and surface water processes are something that I would like to pursue.”
Another hit squarely on why we embraced the idea of a research hub in the first place: “It was a great opportunity to get some hands-on research without worrying about the grade. That lets a person relax and embrace the task at hand. I also liked learning about the entire project and being treated as an actual scientist.”
We greatly appreciate financial and logistical support from Rocky Mountain National Park and the National Park Service and their genuine commitment to research and student learning. Canace Finley and Katherine Lininger provided useful feedback on an earlier draft, and we thank an anonymous reviewer for comments that improved the manuscript.