Any graduate student or postdoc in the sciences can tell you that conducting and presenting original research require training and experience. Undergraduate research experiences give students a head start on this learning process, increasing their interest in science, encouraging them to remain in science majors, and building their confidence and ability to conduct research [Russell et al., 2007].
Presenting and explaining one’s research to fellow scientists, policymakers, or public audiences can require as much or more learning and practice as conducting the research itself. However, undergraduates—whether in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields like the geosciences or in any other discipline—generally have few opportunities for this type of learning. On-campus symposia where undergraduates share their research projects have become common. But far fewer undergraduates take the next step to present at conferences or publish their work beyond campus, partly because of entrenched barriers. These barriers include costs associated with conference attendance and publication, as well as the quality of research, which, despite being valid, may simply not meet the rigors of professional journals.
A regional undergraduate research ecosystem can help overcome these barriers by providing low-cost and inclusive opportunities for students to share their research beyond their campus. The nonprofit Florida Undergraduate Research Association (FURA)—of which we are all current or past board members—has developed such an ecosystem, offering transitional opportunities for undergraduates through various initiatives.
At the annual Florida Undergraduate Research Conference (FURC), for example, undergraduates present research posters, network with fellow students and graduate school recruiters, and attend skill-building workshops. And every other year, students from FURA member institutions present their research to state legislators at an event called Posters at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Student researchers have opportunities to submit manuscripts about their work for publication in FURA’s peer-reviewed Florida Undergraduate Research Journal (FURJ). FURA also organizes the annual Florida Statewide Symposium: Best Practices in Undergraduate Research to prepare university faculty and staff to mentor and support undergraduate research experiences.
These initiatives work together cohesively to support undergraduate research experiences in Florida and to bridge the gap from students presenting their studies in on-campus journals and symposia to students presenting at broader conferences and in peer-reviewed publications. This model, which we detail below, can be replicated and applied elsewhere to further foster undergraduate professional development and benefit the disciplines—from STEM fields to the arts and humanities—these students are entering.
What Is FURA?
FURA is a 501(c)(3) organization registered with the state of Florida and run by a board of nominated volunteer faculty and staff from Florida colleges and universities. The board organizes different aspects of FURA by way of committees, such as the Membership Committee and the Events Committee, which assist schools hosting the annual research conference and statewide symposium.
Funding for FURA comes largely from institutional memberships. Currently, 21 Florida colleges and universities—ranging from public research universities to private, predominantly undergraduate institutions—pay $300 annually for membership, which provides discounts for their students, faculty, and staff to attend FURC and the state symposium, as well as opportunities for participation in Posters at the Capitol and for faculty and staff to sit on FURA committees. (Only board members can chair committees.)
Inclusivity is a driving principle for FURA, so the association works to keep institutional membership fees low enough that smaller schools and community colleges—which may not budget for such memberships—are not hindered by cost from joining. Larger schools often earn back the cost of membership in just the savings from reduced registration fees for the students they send to FURC.
Conference and symposium registration fees—$60 for nonmembers and $55 for members for FURC 2023, for example—are also kept low and rarely increase. And FURA provides a limited number of registration fee waivers for students whose schools cannot send them to attend FURC.
Meeting locations move around the state so that the same schools aren’t forced to travel longer distances or absorb the associated costs year after year. Furthermore, conferences are limited to 2 days so that only one night in a hotel is typically needed.
Another example of FURA’s work toward inclusivity is evident in revisions made in 2022 to the nomination process for the organization’s Mentor of the Year Award. Previously, students were asked to write a two-page essay explaining how their mentor had influenced them. We found, however, that this approach favored mentors of students who were more experienced writers and who, typically, were enrolled at larger universities. To counteract this bias in the process, we removed the essay and instead now ask students to respond to more pointed prompts, such as “Describe the impact that your mentor has had on your professional and personal growth with specific examples.”
A Signature Experience for Student Researchers
The annual research conference, FURC, was first held in 2011 and is FURA’s signature event. It occurs in late February, with a different school playing host each year (Figure 1). Schools apply to host FURC 2 years in advance and are solely responsible for the organization, budget, and other workings of the conference, with support from the FURA Events Committee.
Students from all academic disciplines present posters at FURC, although the conference typically has robust representation from STEM fields (including the Earth and environmental sciences) and psychology programs. To participate, students submit an abstract in December, which may be accepted, sent back for revisions, or, in rare cases, rejected. The timings of abstract submission and of the conference itself are set to give mentors and mentees enough time to finalize a research project and to avoid conflicts with students’ winter and spring breaks and with on-campus research symposia.
The 2-day weekend conference includes a reception for participants to socialize and network and a keynote speaker on Friday night, followed by poster sessions and workshops on Saturday. Workshops are hosted by faculty or student clubs and typically focus on topics related to research (such as ethical behavior for researchers) or career development (such as résumé building). A graduate school recruiter fair runs throughout the conference as well.
In postconference surveys, 92% of student attendees have reported feeling more confident about presenting a research poster after they participated in FURC. More than half said they’d received helpful feedback on their posters and learned more about their research topic at the conference. And the majority of participants have reported that the structure of the conference works well and that session lengths are appropriate [Freundt and Schneider, 2019]. The growth of participation in the conference since 2011 is further testament to the value that students find in attending it (Figure 1).
Presenting for Policymakers
Through the biennial 2-day Florida Undergraduate Research Posters at the Capitol event, four students from each FURA institutional member are invited to Tallahassee. There, they share their research with Florida legislators and the public. They also learn about the political process and how to advocate for undergraduate research at local and state levels, an important element of FURA’s mission.
After being selected, the students, with support from the FURA board and their home institutions, contact their representatives to invite them to their presentations and arrange individual meetings. Students meet in the evening of the first day to have dinner, network, and learn more about advocacy work. The following day, they present their posters in the Florida Capitol before meeting with legislators and staff. They sometimes also take time to visit the Florida Historic Capitol Museum or take in views of Tallahassee from the Capitol’s 22nd-floor observation deck.
During the event, FURA hosts an information table in the building’s rotunda, allowing board members to amplify messages about the value of undergraduate research in the state and how FURA’s activities further that research. In addition to publishing an event program, FURA also shares a one-page advocacy sheet detailing the benefits of undergraduate research in Florida, such as the fact that students who participate in undergraduate research are more likely to graduate.
An Avenue to Publishing
Accessibility is critical to undergraduates’ ability to publish their research. Unfortunately, students do not always have access to submit their work to disciplinary journals beyond their own campus. FURJ, which published its first volume in 2022, gives students an avenue for publication that is a step beyond their campus journal.
The journal is open access and accepts submissions from students enrolled in a 2- or 4-year public or private institution of higher education in Florida. These submissions are peer-reviewed according to disciplinary standards, and the feedback provided to student authors resembles what they would receive from disciplinary journals. FURJ uses a three-tiered rubric in the review process that is designed to provide all students with consistent, professionalized feedback in different formats. The tiers include (1) an initial round of comments from the executive editor, (2) a second round of comments from a student editorial board, and (3) a disciplinary review from an anonymous faculty reviewer at an institution different from that of the student author(s).
Students from any institution in the state can apply to be on the editorial board. Under the guidance of the journal’s executive editor, editorial board members promote the journal on their respective campuses and provide feedback to authors that helps strengthen manuscripts and ensure they are accessible to a broad audience. The board members also hone National Association of Colleges and Employers career readiness competencies with respect to career and self-development, communication, critical thinking, equity and inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork, and technology.
Sharing Best Practices in Undergraduate Research
The annual Florida Statewide Symposium began in 2008 at the University of Central Florida (UCF), where it ran for 10 years. The location now rotates around the state, returning to UCF every other year. This event gathers faculty, administrators, and professional staff from institutions across the state to network and share best practices to promote, grow, and strengthen undergraduate research experiences in Florida.
The weekend symposium typically hosts 80–100 participants, and as with FURC, FURA keeps registration fees low, asking only enough to cover the cost of organizing the conference. Presentations, panels, and posters at the conference cover a range of topics, including university-wide programs (e.g., running a university undergraduate research journal), classroom-level initiatives (e.g., integrating research experiences into individual courses), and even initiatives seeking to build research skills within the context of single assignments or modules within a course.
From the start, the symposium was welcomed by participants. In the first year, 100% of attendees who filled out evaluations “strongly agreed” that the symposium was useful. Evaluations since have continued to recognize its value for education and undergraduate research across the entire state.
The symposium’s success led to the creation of FURC, the idea for which emerged from discussions among undergraduate research mentors over the event’s first few years. Indeed, the symposium is the foundation of FURA’s other activities, as it trains faculty and staff to prepare their students to present research at FURC and Posters at the Capitol and to publish in FURJ.
A Model for Supporting Students
FURA’s overarching purpose, through its initiatives, is to support students. Since the association’s inception, more than 4,000 students have participated in its events or have published in FURJ. It’s difficult to measure quantitatively the full impact of these programs, but student and mentor feedback tells much of the story.
Taryn Lagor, a student at Lynn University who published her undergraduate archaeology research in FURJ, explained how the experience changed her perspective of criticism and peer review: “A lasting lesson I learned from publishing was not to take criticism or revision suggestions too harshly and how much those suggestions will improve your work. They’re absolutely not setbacks, and the patience and work that I put in to revise the work made my paper exceedingly better.” Taryn is now pursuing a master’s degree in bioscience studying how wildlife preserve characteristics influence gopher tortoise populations—and she is applying what she learned through the FURJ peer review process to her master’s thesis. For many other students, FURA has similarly smoothed the transition from undergraduate to graduate research.
FURA’s successful regional ecosystem approach could readily be translated to other states and regions across the United States—particularly where there is a relatively high density of students in higher education institutions—or perhaps could even be adapted to education systems elsewhere. We hope it will be—to the benefit of even more students looking to develop their careers and gain valuable research experience. Here in Florida, FURA will continue looking to expand the number of students served, to improve our existing initiatives, and to innovate in creating new and valuable opportunities for undergraduates.
Freundt, E. C., and K. R. Schneider (2019), Establishing a statewide celebration of undergraduate research: History and lessons learned, Scholarship Pract. Undergrad. Res., 2(3), 28–34, https://doi.org/10.18833/spur/2/3/3.
Russell, S. H., M. P. Hancock, and J. McCullough (2007), Benefits of undergraduate research experiences, Science, 316(5824), 548–549, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1140384.
Alanna L. Lecher (firstname.lastname@example.org), Lynn University, Boca Raton, Fla.; Melodie Eichbauer, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers; Kimberly Schneider, University of Central Florida, Orlando; and Latika Young, Florida State University, Tallahassee