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Benefits and Challenges of Mentored Undergraduate Research Explored at Workshop

Benefits and Challenges of Mentored Undergraduate Research Explored at Workshop April 14, 2011

Undergraduate research thrives on ACM campuses, and a recent workshop for faculty and students from the ACM colleges highlighted some of the successful models for mentored research and pointed to ways to strengthen and expand such opportunities for students.

Models for Undergraduate Research brought nearly 60 faculty and students together on April 2-3 in Chicago to share successes and difficulties, establish new networks, and discuss possible ACM-wide collaboration on an undergraduate research program and annual symposium. The workshop was funded by a grant from the ACM Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) Project.

“It is clear from this workshop that undergraduate research truly matters on ACM campuses.”

John Ottenhoff

ACM Vice President

 A distinctive feature of this event was the participation of students alongside their professors. These students not only served as undergraduate research success stories, but they also offered a valuable perspective in the workshop’s discussions. They spoke directly to what they have gained from significant research experiences, and about how the structures that support those experiences at their institutions may have helped or hindered them in the process.

ACM Vice President John Ottenhoff observed that the event “exemplified the heart of liberal arts education in bringing together faculty and students to talk about their collaborative efforts to explore and learn, as well as to share the results of their inquiries.”

Fittingly, the workshop was timed to occur shortly before Undergraduate Research Week, which celebrates the national scope of the effort. At more than 600 colleges and universities in the U.S., thousands of college students and faculty pursue undergraduate research every year. The week has been marked by a declaration of the U.S. House of Representatives recognizing “the importance of undergraduate research and of providing research opportunities for the Nation’s talented youth to cultivate innovative, creative, and enterprising young researchers, in collaboration with dedicated faculty.”

Keynote speaker Nancy Hensel, Executive Officer of the Council on Undergraduate Research, opened the workshop by giving examples drawn from students and schools around the country to illustrate the matchless, long-range benefits of participating in substantial research experiences as an undergraduate. Hensel identified one key theme of the workshop: that undergraduate research, traditionally thriving in the natural sciences, is in fact also flourishing in the humanities and social sciences and throughout the disciplines.

ACM colleges create programs to foster student research

For many, one of the frequently cited benefits of undergraduate research is acceptance into a doctoral program and, later, a career as a professor and researcher. This was the case for Andrew Civettini, an assistant professor of political science at Knox College and the architect of the workshop. As he explained during one of the weekend’s breakout discussions, his impetus for organizing this event came, in part, from his own meaningful research experience as an undergraduate at Grinnell College.

Civettini participated in Grinnell’s Mentored Advanced Projects (MAP), which provides opportunities for students to work closely with faculty members on scholarly research or the creation of a work of art. MAPs are the culmination of significant preparatory work, the goal of which is to produce results that merit presentation to the wider scholarly world.

One significant outcome of the Models for Undergraduate Research workshop was the chance for faculty and students to share the unique structures that allow undergraduate research to flourish at their institutions, and there were as many practices as there were institutions present. Along with Grinnell’s MAP program, other examples discussed throughout the weekend were the Richter Scholar program at Lake Forest College, the LU-R1 program at Lawrence University, and the department for Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) at St. Olaf College, to name only a few.

Julie Legler, professor of mathematics, statistics, and computer science and director of St. Olaf’s CURI Program, gave the workshop’s concluding address, in which she discussed the opportunities available for students at her institution. CURI emphasizes the cooperative nature of research between undergraduate students and faculty, and Legler underscored that research of this kind is a great opportunity for faculty to collaborate with enthusiastic and high-quality undergraduate students, further enriching their education.

A culminating discussion of the workshop turned to incentives for students who are engaged in research projects. While many individual colleges offer forums for their students to present their research — events such as poster sessions or college-wide symposia — the conference organizers were interested in exploring the possibilities to augment students’ opportunities for dissemination through consortial collaboration.

Participants discussed the potential benefits of starting an ACM-wide scholars program, through which a small number of students, identified each year by their own campuses, would engage in a variety of training activities throughout the year in preparation for an annual ACM undergraduate research symposium. Civettini and the other conference organizers promised to keep the conversation going and to continue finding ways to strengthen ACM colleges as national leaders in fostering undergraduate research.

“It is clear from this workshop that undergraduate research truly matters on ACM campuses,” said ACM’s Ottenhoff. “The opportunity to share ideas about funding mechanisms, models for guiding work, and structures for encouraging dissemination of student research was very valuable to both students and faculty.”


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