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Undergraduate Research Collaboratives: Turning Undergraduates into Investigators

bridges vol. 10, June 2006 / Feature Articles

by Robert L. Kuczkowski , Richard D. Foust , Carol A. Bessel , Ronald L. Christensen , Kari McCarron , and Arthur B. Ellis


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The National Science Foundation's Division of Chemistry, with the help of the chemical sciences community, has introduced a program called Undergraduate Research Collaboratives (URC) to integrate early research experiences into an undergraduate's career and attract students currently underrepresented in sciences. The URC program seeks new models and partnerships with the potential 1) to expand the reach of undergraduate research to include first- and second-year college students; 2) to broaden participation and increase diversity in the student talent pool from which the nation's future technical workforce will be drawn; and 3) to enhance the research capacity, infrastructure, and culture of participating institutions. To date, three research collaborations have been fully funded and numerous planning grants for collaborations have been awarded.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}First-year science classes at US colleges and universities are often criticized as boring repetitions of high school classes. Students are taught basic material but rarely experience anything that conveys the intellectual excitement of being a scientist. Many of these introductory courses have acquired a reputation for turning aspiring scientists and engineers away from technical careers.
Against this background, the US National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Division of Chemistry, which supports basic research and education in the chemical sciences, asked several questions: Can integrating research experiences earlier in an undergraduate's career improve his or her attitude, performance, and/or persistence in introductory courses? Can research projects be designed that will encourage the habits of mind that will lead some of these students to careers that contribute to the nation's ability to innovate? Will such an approach attract students currently underrepresented in science, especially women and students of color?

For nearly 20 years, the Division of Chemistry has supported research opportunities for undergraduates through an NSF-wide program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). Typically targeting students in the summer after their third year of college, the REU program provides them with an opportunity to work closely with mentors - faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students - on cutting-edge research projects. Many students have their first taste of research through the REU program and continue on to graduate school, eventually becoming part of the scientific community. The REU program reflects the prevailing perception that an undergraduate is only ready to start research after having two or three years of basic foundation courses. Only then can the student enter into the apprentice-master relationship that has characterized traditional research training.

"We are very pleased to report high student engagement with these experiences. Critical to that, we note, are both the relevance of research questions to real world problems and the presence of peer [student] leaders working along with the course instructors. The enthusiasm of peers and the instructors creates a sense of excitement and opportunity that is another part of genuine research."

-Professor Donald Wink, University of Illinois at Chicago

"My group succeeded in some experiments and failed in others. We learned from our mistakes and moved on in our experiments to find the answer to our hypothesis. I enjoyed [the program] as a break from the normal chemistry labs. It proved to be an interesting and rewarding experience."

-Undergraduate Student from Purdue University

However, by waiting until the third year of college to provide research opportunities, many students will never have the opportunity to discover whether they have an aptitude for research and innovation. For example, nearly half of all college students enroll at two-year colleges that traditionally have been outside the research mainstream. This group of students is demographically diverse and their enrollment often reflects the low cost of attending these institutions relative to four-year colleges and universities. In principle, there is no reason why students cannot carry out research projects at an earlier stage of their undergraduate education. In fact, the Division of Chemistry was aware of numerous cases where first- and second-year college students had successfully participated in undergraduate research, and wished to explore whether this model was scalable to large numbers of college freshmen and sophomores. These considerations led to the outline for a program to be piloted in the Division of Chemistry that would involve large numbers of students in first- and second-year science classes in real research. These students would have the opportunity to use modern research tools to investigate cutting-edge questions in the chemical sciences for which the answers are not yet known. Such a program should embrace the large, diverse college population, including students at two-year colleges, and recognize that most of these students will not have had advanced high school classes in math, chemistry, and physics.

In order to craft such a program, the Division of Chemistry worked with the national chemistry community to host a workshop that provided community input. The 2003 workshop report, available at http://urc.arizona.edu , endorsed the idea of piloting a program that would enable the participation of large numbers of first- and second-year college students in research projects. With these recommendations, the Division of Chemistry created a program announcement, NSF 03-595, initially called Undergraduate Research Centers (URC), which detailed an opportunity for colleges and universities to compete both for planning grants of $50,000 and for full-scale awards providing nearly $3 million over a five-year period. The program announcement solicited the development of new models and partnerships that were scalable to large numbers of students and sustainable beyond the duration of the award. Connections to pre-college institutions, national laboratories, industry, and research institutions in other countries were also encouraged.

Over 100 proposals from across the US were received in response to the initial program announcement. Peer reviewers of proposals were asked to evaluate the impact of each proposed project on students, on the professional development of their mentors, and on the research capacity, infrastructure, and culture of the participating institutions. The result of this first call for proposals was that 20 planning awards and one full center award were made.

A second URC workshop was held in 2004 to help the chemistry community better understand the objectives of the program. The report from this workshop may be found at http://www.scu.edu/cas/research/urc.cfm . The workshop and report stimulated modifications to the program announcement and clarified the URC program's goals. The second competition resulted in two full center awards.

lab_nsf_2 Collectively, three currently funded URCs exemplify the program's objectives to support new models and partnerships. For example, the award based at Purdue University [http://www.purdue.edu/dp/caspie/ ] involves educational institutions from Indiana and Illinois in establishing an instrumentation network that permits high sample throughput and remote operation of the instruments from any of the nine participating institutions. Research modules have been developed around themes such as biodiesel fuels, food chemistry, and solar energy conversion. Another award based at Ohio State University [http://ohio-reel.osu.edu/index.html ] includes 15 colleges and universities in Ohio and, when fully operational, will link approximately 15,000 student researchers annually using Ohio's ultrahigh-speed electronic network. An award led by the University of South Dakota [http://www.usd.edu/npurc/ ], which includes community and tribal colleges, provides research support through such instrumentation as high-field nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, and single crystal X-ray diffraction.

An important element of the URC program is its evaluation, both at the level of individual collaboratives, and as a Division-wide program having the potential to be expanded to other scientific and engineering disciplines. These evaluations will seek to assess the impact on participating students, mentors, and institutions. They will inform the future of the program.

The program recently was renamed Undergraduate Research Collaboratives and the current program description and announcement may be found at http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=6675&org=CHE&from=home .



[Views expressed in this article are those of the authors and may not reflect those of the National Science Foundation.]{/access}


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