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Teaching ToolBox

Starting Young

Undergraduate research promises all-around benefits to students, professors, and institutions of higher learning.

Research taken on by undergraduates provides students the opportunity to learn how to do projects, to get to know a professor, and to add an impressive item to their résumés. Students may become so involved in projects that they will work without pay or credit because they take pride in their research and want to complete it.

Such research teaches laboratory skills, computer techniques, and practical time-management skills, particularly project planning and completing tasks on time. Weekly meetings with an adviser require students to practice informal oral presentation skills, which are very important in industrial settings. The written report is an opportunity for students to improve their writing. The formal presentation of a paper at a meeting or conference gives students another opportunity to polish communication skills.

Research involves learning by discovery, which undoubtably promotes retention and understanding of subject matter. Since research always involves new situations, it helps prepare students to adapt, learn quickly, and solve difficult problems. In addition, it helps them learn patience and perseverance—essential skills for all engineering graduates.

Advising undergraduate students who are conducting research can be both time consuming and rewarding, and professors may have to develop their own rewards since few administrations give significant, or any, credit for this activity. If the project and the student are carefully chosen, it is possible to publish research with undergraduates. However, the rate of production of research will be lower for most undergraduates than it is for graduate students. The major reason for involving undergraduates in research is to help them learn how to conduct research, not to accomplish the research itself. Mentoring students is a chance to get to know them well and perhaps have an impact on their lives. Watching students mature and grow can be one of the major rewards of academic life.

Successful advising starts with making sure that students have the right background. They need to have completed the appropriate core courses and taken or currently be enrolled in the appropriate electives; otherwise, they will spend most of a semester “getting up to speed.” Projects need to be well defined, have a high probability for success, and involve topics that undergraduates can understand without years of advanced study.

Undergraduates need direction and supervision. Since procrastination is often a major reason for failure, regular meetings with professors providing evaluation and feedback are important. Students need help developing high but realistic goals with specified time to finish the project and write the report. Revising the time line is often necessary. Optimal advising occurs when students work directly with a professor. Assigning them to work with an advanced Ph.D. student or post-doctoral student can also be effective, and this arrangement can provide practical experience in mentoring for the supervisor. However, since a more experienced student may use a fledgling for his or her own benefit (the student may be asked to wash laboratory dishes and do other menial work), the professor needs to closely supervise the mentor.

Working in teams is a somewhat different research experience than working individually, and many students prefer it. More experienced undergraduates can teach others the techniques required. Teamwork is very valuable when there is an industrial sponsor who “wants the results yesterday.” In addition to helping pay for the research, industrial sponsors provide significant motivation for undergraduates. The demands of outsiders seem more real to students than those from professors.

Finally, undergraduate research is one of the few bridges between undergraduates and the typical university's research mission. For colleges without Ph.D. programs, undergraduate research can help in the recruitment of both students and faculty. And students who conduct research as undergraduates are more likely to go on to graduate school, helping to ensure that there will be an adequate supply of professors.

 

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University.
Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at purdue@asee.org.



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