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Inquiring college undergrads

Regional public colleges and universities have ramped up undergraduates’ involvement in faculty research to drive recruitment, retention and revenues
University Business, May 2018
  • DEEPER LEARNING—Undergraduate research has rapidly expanded to first- and second-year students at the University of  West Florida. Administrators see this as a competitive edge over larger institutions, where research may be limited to grad students, seniors and juniors.
  • NATURAL FIT—The University of West Florida‘s Office of Undergraduate Research has increased its efforts to connect students with faculty seeking research assistants. It also helps instructors embed research in regular courses.
  • WIRED FOR SUCCESS—Undergraduate research plays a key role in recruitment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Parents, especially, view it as a more worthwhile alternative for their students than the traditional summer job.
  • PROMISING FORMULA—Leaders at the University of Pittsburgh‘s Greensburg campus consider undergraduate research to be a valuable form of experiential learning.

A culturally rich, historically black neighborhood in Pensacola, Florida, has been experiencing gentrification.

To keep the legacy of the Belmont-DeVilliers community alive, a local engineer is guiding a group of University of West Florida undergraduates creating a virtual version of the neighborhood—along with a small brick-and-mortar museum to showcase the project. It’s just one of many such opportunities at West Florida.

“We’re getting students engaged in research earlier—first- and second-year students—and we’re expanding beyond the sciences,” says Allison Schwartz, West Florida’s director of undergraduate research. That expansion covers the humanities, the social sciences and all five of West Florida’s academic colleges.


Online exclusive: Slideshow of undergraduate research possibilities


As a result, at the university’s most recent research celebration, three times as many undergraduates presented as had appeared at the annual event just a few years prior.

Across the country, undergraduate research is playing an increasingly important role at many regional higher ed institutions as well as at community colleges. Learning benefits aside, the undergraduate research serves as a recruiting and retention tool, and also is a way to bring in tuition and grant revenue.

“There’s a strong correlation between participation in undergraduate research and student success as measured by higher rates of retention and graduation,” says Beth Ambos, executive officer of the Council on Undergraduate Research, which has 700 member institutions.

“There’s also a well-organized movement, coming from various parts of the academy, that’s promoting undergraduate research that serves the community.”

Modes of discovery

Notable undergraduate research programs and projects

West Florida University’s Explorers program lets students shadow faculty researchers in a variety of disciplines.

Fresno State University faculty bring projects into the classroom through “course-based undergraduate research experiences,” or CUREs.

University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg’s Green Scholars program pairs top performers with faculty researchers. At its Center for Digital Text, students help pioneer the creation of digital archives. At The Center for Applied Research, undergraduates assist with research for paying clients, such as health care systems.

Undergraduate nursing students at Florida International University work on the SENORITAS project to research safe sex and HIV.

Democratizing the sciences

California’s Central Valley presents student researchers with a microcosm of the nation’s ecological challenges, including food and energy production, water and air quality, and environmental sustainability.

To get first- and second-year students involved in solving these and other problems, California State University, Fresno is expanding “course-based undergraduate research experiences,” or CUREs, to several disciplines, says Christopher Meyer, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics.

With help from an anonymous $500,000 donation in 2017, faculty in several sciences bring research projects into their courses.

Meyer calls this approach “democratizing” because it provides for-credit opportunities to students who might not previously have been selected to participate in extracurricular faculty research.

“In the sciences, there have not always been enough research experiences for everyone,” Meyer says. “We want to broaden access beyond just the selected or self-selected students.”

This research push has resulted in students taking more science courses, as well as in better retention for freshmen and sophomores, Meyer says, adding that it’s closing achievement gaps for first-generation and underrepresented students too.

Some enhanced facilities support this research. A major gift allowed the College of Agriculture to build a $30 million research center with open-plan lab spaces designed for collaboration and interdisciplinary work.

On the other side of the country, undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg branch campus participate in projects for paying clients—such as analyzing community health trends for a local health care system.

“Undergraduate research is a form of experiential learning,” says Sharon P. Smith, president of the Greensburg campus. “We see that as something distinct from lectures and reading-writing assignments.”

Graduate students, when assisting with research, often fall in line with the faculty member’s way of thinking. Undergraduates, however, can bring a new perspective, Smith says. “Undergraduates lead faculty to ask fundamentally new questions they haven’t thought of before.”

Not flipping burgers

The Office of Undergraduate Research at West Florida prioritizes its role of matchmaker in creating relationships between students and faculty. First- and second-year students who have no research experience can shadow faculty in labs through the Explorers program.

“Often, faculty are looking for good students to work with them and students would love to get engaged, but they don’t know how,” says Schwartz.

Her office guides faculty in embedding research into their classes, and it pays students to assist on projects through a grant-funded work-study program. These options for undergraduates give the university a competitive edge in recruiting.

At flagship schools, research is sometimes restricted to grad students, seniors and top performers, Schwartz says. “We’re trying to get middle-tier students engaged, which can help them find potential and excel when they see how the course material applies to what they’re interested in doing,” she adds.

Research also resonates strongly with parents of incoming students.

“If you say to a parent that, instead of flipping burgers or bagging groceries during the summer, a student can be working in a lab or with a faculty member on things that will help decide a career path, that’s a very important message,” says Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation at University of Massachusetts Lowell.

UMass Lowell’s undergraduates can visit a school website to find research projects, including study-abroad programs and summer positions that offer salaries.

“It has definitely picked up momentum,” says Chen. “In the past, individual faculty would spot a student and say, ‘How’d you like to work with me in the lab?’ Over the last several years, we’ve really built up the infrastructure and formalized it.”

Faculty are winning grants to include undergraduates, particularly minorities and first-generation students. The extent of the programs is limited only by cost.

“A lot of students work part-time, especially during summer, so one of our challenges is finding enough resources and funding to offer as many opportunities as there are students wanting to take them,” Chen says. “Many can’t afford to do it for free, even if it’s a great experience.”

Creating competitive students

Landmark College in Vermont is expanding research alternatives for its unique population of 450 students, all of whom have learning disabilities (such as dyslexia), ADHD or autism spectrum disorder.

“It adds to their pride and empowerment and confidence,” President Peter Eden says. “It means our students are no longer here because of a deficit. When they can do things in terms of faculty research, they’re simply college students.”

Landmark’s Institute for Research and Training explores innovative ways to educate and support students who learn differently. The center’s findings inform pedagogy on campus, and its researchers offer professional development to other institutions and K12 educators.

Participating in this research helps Landmark’s students develop soft skills such as communication and collaboration. “A lot of our students are very much interested in research related to teaching and how the brain works because of what they’ve been struggling through their whole lives,” Eden says.

At community colleges across the country, students are also spending more time on research—and many of these projects have a local focus. Finger Lakes Community College in upstate New York is an example.

Students in biology professor James Hewlett’s classes are taking blood samples from red-tailed hawks as a way to determine gender. Other students are being taught to safely tag bears to help manage populations in the region.

“It raises their profile in our community, because they go out and talk about their research,” says Hewlett, who is also executive director of a 40-plus-institution coalition called the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative. “And it gets press and publicity for the institution.”

The benefits for students go beyond engagement and academic success. For one, the research activity has brought the college more grant funding, Hewlett says. “Our students are also becoming more competitive for scholarships and summer research opportunities because they’ve already had a research experience.” 


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.