Undergraduate research : a key (essential?) component of a college science education

Apr 30 2007 Published by under Science Education & Outreach

Following Chad and Jake, I want to jump off from an article in Science about undergraduate research. It's always nice when some sort of survey confirms one's preexisting biases....

In short, the survey found that performing research increased undergraduates' interest in science and technology fields (so-annoyingly-called "STEM" disciplines, for Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). Such undergraduates were also more likely to go on to advanced degrees, although here the causality isn't necessarily clear. The survey did find that students with higher grades tended to be more likely to get involved in research; this raises at least the possibility that "getting involved in research" and "going on to an advanced degree" are affected by a common cause, and that the former doesn't necessarily increase the probability of the latter.

Of great importance was the fact that undergraduate research seemed to improve the confidence and future success of underrepresented minorities and women. I'm not sure I can tell you what is particularly "white male patriarchy" about classroom performance, but if this is a way to help people realize their true abilities in science regardless of their ethnic background, then it could be an important component in the continuing problem of minorities and women in science. (Indeed, the title of the Science article is "The Pipeline: Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences.")

I had very good undergraduate research experiences myself. I was very lucky to spend all four summers after each of my four college years working in nuclear physics at the 88" cyclotron at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. I think that the people there were happy with me— and that's why I was hired back on subsequent summers. But I cannot deny that at least that first year, it was family connections that gave me the opportunity to get in the door. I also did astronomical research my senior year at Harvey Mudd, working with Shane Burns on measuring the distance to galaxies using the Surface Brightness Fluctuations method. Nothing publishable came out of that, and the result of the research program was our own understanding of how to use the method— but the experience itself was invaluable to me.

I'm going to stick to Physics and Astronomy, since that's my own field, even though the Science article is more general. If you think about it, there are (at least) two things that go by the name "Physics." The first is a body of knowledge. Call it the current state of our understanding of Physics. The second is a field of study, a potential career. The way college education is set up, we do a far better job teaching the former than the latter. Almost all of our classes, even the lab classes, teach what is known and understood in Physics, what we have learned. There is, traditionally, very little or no education in how one goes about being a physicist.

Undergraduate research is the best place to learn something about the latter. It may be that you love the physics, but don't love doing the physics. Wouldn't it be nice to figure that out from your undergraduate education? Or, vice versa, it may be that you struggle with some of the concepts of physics, but you have a true talent in contributing to the body of knowledge of physics. Wouldn't it be nice to figure that out before you write off the very notion of going on to graduate school?

I would even like to see undergraduates in Physics who don't go in in Physics to get involved in research. Again, lab classes are often useful or even essential, but are very different things. It would help if people who are "out there" as senators and lawyers and teachers and so forth had some idea what it was like to be an actual practicing physicist.

I've advised a number of undergraduate research projects myself, and have had four students in the last four years graduate with honors theses; all four are now in graduate school somewhere. I'm also on a committee at Vanderbilt that gives out a prize for undergraduate research each year. Let me tell you, reading some of those applications is intimidating. Last year's winner was the first author of a Nature paper (the cover story, even), and was a paper I was already familiar with as a result of it having been cited by a number of the telescope time requests I'd read the previous week. For some of these applications, I'm wondering: should we give these students a prize, or should we give them a Master's degree?

It is true that undergraduate research is like graduate research in the first few years: often, perhaps most of the time, it takes more time for the professor than the professor gets back. Certainly a lot of what the students are doing we could in less time than it takes for us to teach them how to do it. I've heard this from other sources as well, so I know I'm not just blowing smoke here. However, I view it as an investment. Some of the students, after a while, do get to the point where they are making real contributions. But, also, I view it as a key part of my mission as a physics professor to getting undergraduates, as well as graduate students, involved in research. As I said, it should just be a standard part of an undergraduate physics education.

9 responses so far

  • jeffk says:

    Due to indecisiveness and attending a small college, I didn't really have much an opportunity to do undergraduate research. So I got hired after graduation as a "junior scientist", where I just did 40 hours a week of research for a year. This was a great test to see if I liked it and it got me in the door for grad school. Still, I think it was pretty lucky - something of a rare opportunity.

  • mollishka says:

    I'll probably have more to say on this later, but for now:
    the distinction between being interested in/good at/enjoying learning about physics and actually doing physics are two very different things. The first is addressed in classes, and the assumption many make is that it immediately implies the latter; furthermore, the converse assumption is usually made: if an individual is not good at learning physics [in a classroom setting], then they will not be good at doing physics [i.e., doing research and adding to the general body of knowledge]. Now, while to an extent there is a correlation between the two, the fact remains that one does not imply the other; this is why it's not unheard of for good researchers with poor grades to have trouble getting into grad school, while it's also not unehard of for people who've "just always been good at physics" to decide halfway through graduate school that they loathe the idea of spending the rest of their lives playing with e.g., galaxies, and they'd rather go play on Wall Street.

  • mollishka says:

    jeffk: that's precisely one reason why lots of [summer] REU programs focus on trying to attract students from non-research institutions.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Molishka -- exactly right.
    Indeed, sometimes it's after.
    Among researchers, it's often a serious taboo to admit that you don't really like research. Indeed, at most institutions, if you say you are as interested in and as rewarded by the teaching as the research, it's like admitting to a horrible social disease. But, why should everybody love it?
    I was talking to a woman who is currently a post-doc in astronomy, and who is about to leave the field. The main reason: she's figured out that she doesn't like research enough to focus too much on it. I asked her a little about it, and she had some thoughtful things to say about it. I'm not sure I could reproduce them all here, but the things she identified were indeed features of research. One was too much fiddling with annoying details. Another was the open-endedness of it. You don't just do stuff and get stuff right, you plot everything you can think of against everything else to see if anything emerges. I personally really like that aspect, but I can see where it would be frustrating for others.
    It's always too bad to see a bright young person leave astronomy-- particularly when it's a woman, given our current imbalance-- but I'm convinced that this woman is making the right decision for her. And, unless there are big things she wasn't telling me, she really was leaving because hyperfocus on research wasn't her thing, not because of some horrible gender issue.
    -Rob

  • jeffk says:

    Yes, I'm aware of REU programs. My problem is that I didn't really fall into physics with any seriousness until my senior year as an undergraduate, and - lazy as this sounds - at the place I was in at the time, I would have been much more likely to do summer research had I been at a research institution where I would have been much more likely to stumble into it.

  • mollishka says:

    Sorry, my eyes tend to glaze over when people start talking about gender, so I'll just repeat the comment I made over on Chad's blog:

    Getting undergrads involved in research can be beneficial in the other direction as well: it's better to realize you don't want to do research for the rest of your life while you're still in college rather than halfway through grad school.

    I guess part of my point is, especially as someone who loves research and abhors classes, is why the hell anyone would go to grad school thinking they are going to make a career out of doing research when they don't actually enjoy, you know, doing research. It's not like they're doing it for the money.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Indeed, if you want to be rich, there are better ways to go.
    Many people don't find out that they don't want to do research for the rest of their lives until they're in grad school. And, indeed, at every school you always have some people who choose to leave with a Master's Degree, rather than finish the PhD, because they come to realize just that.
    -Rob

  • mollishka says:

    But, ideally, that wouldn't be the case. The idea is that a lot of time (and resources) are invested in training a graduate student and getting them up to speed; typically people realize research isn't for them right around the time that one would expect this investment to start paying back. I really think that if said students had more exposure to what research really entails as an undergrad, then, on average, they would be able to figure it out before applying to graduate school, and those admissions slots/funding/etc. could go to someone who actually wants it.

  • Leni says:

    I really really agree with this. I was able to be a part of two research projects and worked for several year at a University of Wisconsin telescope. I contributed actual data to a real project that resulted in at least one published paper... I'm very proud of that 🙂
    Honestly though, you can't go wrong. If you go on to grad school you will be better prepared. If you don't, so what? You presumably had a good experience and learned something about how research is done.
    Although frankly, I think they ought to be teaching undergrads a lot more. My astrophysics BS came with only 8 required astronomy credits, no required GR class. I would never have analyzed real spectra if I hadn't done undergrad reasearch and I never would have seen a professional grade telescope if I hadn't gotten a job as a telescope operator.
    Once, just out of curiosity I looked up the course guide for an astrophysics degree at some UK school (I don't remember which anymore) and the difference was mind-boggling. They had math classes taylored just for physics students! Courses on GR, even some on computational physics and computer modeling! I felt cheated. Those kids were getting practical experience and much more in depth classwork, while I was begging for undergrad jobs and filling humanities requirements.
    (Nothing against the breadth education or the humanities, I just think it came at the expense of classes more relevent to my major.)