Study: Undergrad research experiences make a noticeable difference

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College students who participate in hands-on, faculty-mentored research while earning their bachelor’s degrees cite multiple personal and professional benefits the experience delivers, from strengthening their time-management, critical-thinking and communication skills to developing one-on-one connections with distinguished faculty.

But a new analysis by scientists from Auburn University, the University of Washington and three other collaborating institutions suggests the value of structured research programs for undergraduates extends to society as a whole by encouraging participants to seek advanced degrees in scientific and technological fields — often referred to as STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

In an article published this week in the journal BioScience, the researchers reported that college undergraduates who take part in summer research training programs — specifically, in this study, the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates Sites initiative — are 48 percent more likely to pursue STEM-related doctoral degrees than demographically matched students who apply but are not selected.

With annual spending on STEM training in the U.S. surpassing $14 billion each year, guiding future investments requires a good understanding of effective approaches, the authors explain. They looked at this NSF program, specifically, as a case study.

“This program is one of NSF’s most visible efforts to increase STEM research and literacy, and it involves an early exposure to paid research for undergraduates,” said paper co-author Adam Summers, a UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences and biology at Friday Harbor Laboratories. “An outstanding question is whether these programs actually boost people up or just stir the pot. This paper provides really nice evidence that participation in this program leads to greater STEM success as measured by awards, grad school enrollment and papers published.

Summers is one of half a dozen UW professors and postdoctoral researchers who have mentored students in this NSF program. Other UW mentors include Daniel Grunbaüm (oceanography), George Hunt (aquatic and fishery sciences) and Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria (environment and forest sciences). Previous UW postdoctoral researchers who mentored students include Anne Gothmann, Nick Gidmark and Joe Bizzarro.

In the REU Sites program, NSF awards universities and laboratories grants to support the scientific training of 10 college undergraduates for 10 weeks each summer for three years. Students from colleges with limited research opportunities apply to host institutions such as the UW, and those accepted receive a stipend.

To gauge the effectiveness of these funded research experiences for college freshmen, sophomores and juniors, the researchers identified and tracked 176 individuals with similar demographics who had applied to one of five field-ecology- or field-biology-based training programs offered at five different REU Sites in the U.S. for the summers of 2009 to 2011. Of those subjects, 88 were accepted into their desired REU Site; 88 were not.

“Our assumption for a long time has been that conducting independent undergraduate research under the guidance of a faculty mentor prepares students for success in STEM careers,” said lead author Alan Wilson, an associate professor at Auburn University. “Our data support that assumption. They show that the product is real, that it can make a difference — for the students, their mentors and the reputation of their universities.”

At the UW’s Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island, one of the students mentored by Summers was Dylan Wainwright, an undergraduate at Duke University. His summer research conducted at the UW lab was later published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and Wainwright went on to graduate school at Harvard University, where he was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Two other undergraduates who came to Friday Harbor Labs for summer research went on to pursue doctoral degrees at Brown University and the University of California, Davis — both backed by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

“I believe students’ success is due in part to the strong sense of cohort that develops among the student participants,” Summers said. “They support each other in their career decisions, offer advice and examples for various paths, and lead each other by example.”

Other scientists involved with this program and study are from the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Colorado, the University of Virginia and San Francisco State University.

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This post was adapted from an Auburn University release.

Tag(s): Adam SummersCollege of Arts & SciencesCollege of the EnvironmentDaniel GrunbaumDepartment of BiologyFriday Harbor LaboratoriesGeorge HuntSchool of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences

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