Why Undergraduate Research?
Becoming a successful practitioner in the sciences requires the ability to integrate a wide array of technical skills and basic knowledge. While educating students in the sciences at the undergraduate (UG) level has traditionally focused on developing skills through formal laboratory courses and helping students acquire detailed knowledge via formal lecture courses, relatively little time in the traditional curriculum has been reserved for helping students learn how to integrate this information as needed to solve complex, open-ended problems that are the hallmark of real world science.
In the College of Science at SJSU, we actively seek to address this deficiency in the traditional curriculum by strongly encouraging undergraduate students to participate in research. Engaging in research with personalized mentoring by caring, knowledgeable, and dedicated faculty members, is a highly effective way for undergraduates to both reinforce their knowledge and develop their advanced problem solving skills.
Benefits of UG Research for SJSU Students
Many studies have now confirmed that a number of benefits accrue to students that participate in UG research. These can broadly be divided into four categories: 1) gains in knowledge and skills, including enhanced content mastery, creative thinking, problem solving skills, technical skills, and communication skills; 2) academic achievement and educational attainment, including higher retention rates, grades, persistence in the major, graduation rates, and admission to graduate and professional schools; 3) professional growth, including enhanced ability to work in teams, strengthening of professional networks, and enhanced professional credentials; 4) personal growth, including enhanced ability to learn independently, stimulation of curiosity, increased confidence, and enhanced development of personal intiative.1,2 Furthermore, the benefits are especially profound for students from underrepresented groups where engagement in research correlates positively with virtually all student success outcomes.3 This is critical at SJSU where more than one quarter of students identify as first generation and 37% as underrepresented minority. Importantly, due to these attributes, UG student participation in research resonates with two of the four “Pillars of Student Success4” identified by SJSU leadership on May 5, 2016: Advising, and Student Engagement.
Benefits of UG Research to SJSU
While the significant benefits of UG research to students provide ample justification on their own, there are numerous additional benefits to the university and community as well. Beyond the obvious benefit of any research enterprise of generating new knowledge with all the attendant value that brings to society, supporting UG research also strongly benefits the institution. Faculty cite involvement of UG students in their research as a highly desirable part of their jobs because 1) working with junior colleagues helps them achieve their scholarly outcomes, 2) it helps break down barriers between faculty and students, 3) it informs their teaching, and 4) it increases their job satisfaction.1 Therefore, maintaining a vigorous UG research program can be viewed as having benefits for both faculty recruiting and retention. Beyond the benefit to individual faculty, the institution benefits from UG research by 1) building a community of scholars, 2) deepening relationships with alumni, 3) providing opportunities to engage the community, 4) enhance the institution’s reputation, and 5) providing the basis for extramural funding.
How are UG Students engaged in Research at SJSU?
UG research is not uncommon in higher education. Virtually every university that supports research allows UG students to participate in research opportunities. However, at many research-intensive universities, UG participation in research means serving as a low-level assistant such as a dishwasher or simply providing technical support for a doctoral or postdoctoral researcher. In the College of Science at SJSU, we have a strong culture of engaging UG students in research as actual collaborators. UG researchers typically participate in every aspect of the research project, ranging from examining the literature, to experimental design, to conducting the laboratory activities, to analyzing the data, to writing the publications. Indeed, typical SJSU research groups are comprised principally of UG researchers, with usually a few MS students and more rarely a post-doctoral associate or technician, all working closely with a faculty mentor. The fact that SJSU UG research students are truly engaged intellectually in their research is corroborated by the fact that UG students are frequent co-authors with faculty on research publications. (Note the unusually high frequency of undergraduate authors, highlighted by bold type, on the list of recent research publications.
Naturally UG students are not ready immediately to perform the various research functions independently, so they are guided individually and at their own pace by their faculty mentors. It is precisely this one-on-one intellectual engagement that leads to many of the benefits of UG research to both faculty member and student. In the CoS at SJSU, enthusiasm for this type of individualized research with UG students is one of the key attributes that we seek in our faculty and this priority among our faculty starkly distinguishes SJSU faculty from many faculty members at research-intensive institutions where dedicating time for mentoring of individual undergraduates is not considered a high priority.
Because of the many benefits, the College of Science strongly encourages undergraduate research. Indeed financial support for UG research is provided at all levels of the university, including mini-RSCA grants to support student stipends and research costs, release time for faculty mentoring student researchers, “just-in-time” funds for addressing unexpected research needs and opportunities, and recognition of student research accomplishments at the annual College of Science research poster day, with scholarship awards, and at many departmental commencement convocations. Additionally, dedicated faculty teams have successfully received and continue to maintain major research-focused training grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, The W.M. Keck Foundation, The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and others, all with the mission of exposing undergraduate students to research and several with a particular emphasis on underrepresented students.
- Osborn, J.M. and Karukstis, K.K., 2009, The benefits of undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative activity. In: M. Boyd and J. Wesemann (Eds.), pp 41-53, Broadening Participation in Undergraduate Research: Fostering Excellence and Enhancing Impact. Council on Undergraduate Research, Washington, DC., and references therein.
- Russell, S.H., Hancock, M.P., McCullough, J., 2007, Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences. Science, 316, 548-549.
- Hurtado, S., Egan, Jr., M.K., Figueroa, T., Hughes, B.E., 2014, Reversing Underrepresentation: The Impact of Undergraduate Research Programs on Enrollment in STEM Graduate Programs, and references therein.
- Feinstein, A. and Blaylock, R. SJSU’s Four Pillars of Student Success: College Readiness, Advising, Student Engagement and Clearing Bottlenecks. May 5, 2016.