Development and Assessment of an Undergraduate Research Community

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Literature suggests the benefits to undergraduate research include improving students’ understanding of the research process, their resilience, and their ability to persist through failure. However, at primarily undergraduate institutions, there are a number of challenges in making the undergraduate research experience successful for both students and faculty mentors. First, there is a significant burden on faculty mentors who, along with designing a research project, are typically individually advising students, training them in reading and writing about research, and critiquing posters and presentations. These are skills which could be addressed more broadly among all research students. Additionally, due to limited opportunities for group interactions during summer research and the number of faculty advising individual students, students may lack a research community for interaction and support.

To develop a set of best practices for undergraduate research at our institution and support both student and faculty development, we initiated an Undergraduate Research Community (URC). For two summers, we offered workshops aimed at developing general research skills (reading and interpreting the literature, abstract writing, visualizing data, preparing posters, and applying to graduate school), along with social activities and opportunities for informal presentations.

This paper will discuss the structure of the URC at the authors’ institution and related results from perception and direct assessment surveys. Before and after their research experiences, students completed a self-assessment regarding their competency in research skills and attitudes, and their feelings of involvement in the broader engineering community. To build upon previous work, which has primarily relied on self-assessment by students, faculty, and alumni, students answered open-ended questions from a previously published assessment of student knowledge of experimental design, and a group of faculty evaluated their answers according to a standard rubric. Finally, select students and faculty mentors were interviewed to better understand strengths and weaknesses of the URC.

Several positive outcomes emerged as a result of the URC. First, a large number of women underclassmen with one term or less of prior experience participated in summer research activities and in the URC in 2017 and 2018. Second, all students reported significant improvements in their abilities to engage in various research-related behaviors. Specifically, planning and designing experiments, using primary literature, and writing testable hypotheses were most significantly impacted when comparing pre- and post-survey data. Students also reported a significant increase in their confidence in designing experiments, performing research, and communicating findings. Perhaps most importantly, students noted that they felt part of the larger scientific and engineering community after their experience. Finally, over 75% plan to continue their research beyond the summer and pursue graduate school.

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