Tuesday, August 30, 2011

undergraduate research: the basics

Many institutions - with or without graduate programs - value undergraduate research opportunities. Faculty may be under pressure to provide such opportunities, or may wish to take advantage of funding for undergraduate research to further their own research agenda. My personal experience is that undergraduate research is usually more valuable to the student (as a means of deepening their education, preparing them for grad school, etc.) than it is to the professor (in terms of providing material aid in their research). In fact, providing research opportunities for undergraduates can take a great deal of a professor's time and energy, for very little "pay off" in terms of substantive contributions to the research.

I take it as a given that we all wish to improve our students' education by giving them opportunities for independent and/or supervised research. But how do we make these undergraduate research opportunities work for us, and not against us, when it comes to our research productivity? I don't pretend to have all the answers, but my current research involves several undergraduates, so I've planned a series of posts on how to approach the issue. This first post will focus on the different ways one can structure undergraduate research opportunities, and the pluses and pitfalls of each.

1) Have some class. One of my undergraduate minions is working on my research through an independent study. Essentially, we created a class where much of the work is hands-on research. Tiny U requires that all independent studies have a written contract, which spells out in detail what is required of the student. Because this is an academic class, the contract must include readings, tests/papers or other evaluation techniques, learning outcomes, etc. If your university doesn't require such a contract, I highly recommend you create one, just to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.

The pluses of this approach lie in the academic requirements of the class. My student is not only working with data, she will be required to read about the archaeology of the region, and basic zooarchaeology. She will have a much better understanding of what we are doing, and why, than students who come to the research through a different channel. Additionally, the class structure requires a research paper, and I have outlined a series of small research projects that are the right length and difficulty for a single-semester paper. My student may choose to do something else, but if she chooses one of the projects outlined, I will get part of my research project written up through her classwork. If she does a good job, I can co-author a paper with her. If she does a lousy job and I have to totally re-do the work, at least she's found some of the essential references for me and summarized the data.

The major pitfall of the independent study is that it takes some work on my part. I need to provide her with the readings, make sure she's making progress on her research paper, and generally spend some portion of the time I would have to spend were this a normal classroom course. It's easy to fall behind on discussions of the readings, or in evaluating outlines of the research project, with the result that the class is not as academically engaging as it should be.

2) Be Practical. Many universities, including Tiny U, offer credits of "research practicum". Other universities may use a different name, but basically the student signs up for 1-4 credits or practicum, and they spend that time doing whatever tasks you assign them, as long as it is related to your research. There is no expectation that this represents an academic class, so it is not required that the professor and student have a contract, required readings, or evaluation opportunities.

The pros of this approach: 1) It's easier and more approachable for the student; they don't have to commit to a major research paper or readings. 2) It's easier for the professor. Obviously, the more background and context you give your minions, the better job they can do, but the research practicum is less work to set up and maintain than an independent study. 3) It's a good way to "try out" a new minion, to see if he/she will make a good long-term part of your research team, and to ease him/her into a more active role. One of my students this semester is taking this route, and I hope to continue working with her in the future, perhaps moving her into a directed study.

The pitfalls of this approach: The only real pitfall is that you can't require your minions to do background reading, and whether or not they will engage in a semi-independent research project depends on individual negotiations with that student.

3) Work 'em hard. Federal or university work-study money can pay for undergraduate research assistants. At Tiny U, we can only use federal work study, since we have no money of our own. RAs are paid at a much higher rate than TAs here at Tiny U, but the total amount of money they are able to make over the course of the semester is the same. In other words, RAs who work the same number of hours as TAs during the week will not be able to work the whole semester.

The pros of this approach are similar to those of the research practicum, with the added benefit of supporting a student in need of extra income. Unlike many of the jobs students use to support themselves, this job will enrich their education and experience.

The major pitfall at Tiny U is the limited number of students who are both work-study eligible and qualified and interested. I have one student working for me through the federal work-study program, and she is the least qualified and least engaged of my minions. But, they are all exceptionally bright young women, so that's not saying much.

4) Road trip! This summer, I took two students to Old Graduate Town to work in the museum with me. One of the students signed up for an independent study, while the other came just for the experience. I paid for their expenses while they were working with me, but they had to pay their own way to the museum.

pros: the students were thrilled to be in a cool, new city, with opportunities to explore in the evening and on weekends. They were enthusiastic about the work, and they were at my disposal, day in day out, for weeks. They did a lot of the data entry and metrics, while I identified the bones. If you have a project with a chunk of "grunt work", having a student with you in the lab can greatly contribute to your productivity. This summer was the only experience I've had with undergraduate research where the benefits to my productivity greatly outweighed the costs.

pitfalls: depending on what you're doing, students may not learn very much from the experience. My students this summer learned their bones very well, and probably have van den Dreisch memorized (poor things), but they didn't learn how to identify the different species, and they didn't get as much background on the reasons for the project as I would have hoped.

5) Seminar. I've never done this, but I know people organized entire seminars around their research. They use student projects (annotated bibliographies, class papers, etc.) to cut down on their own workload. This isn't possible at Tiny U, where we only teach three archaeology classes. Even a topic as general as "zooarchaeology" is too specific to attract sufficient students. But, depending on your institution, there may be ways to make this work.

pros: Like I said, I've never done it, but I imagine the pros are the same as those for an independent study.

pitfalls: Prepping a new class, teaching, and grading is a huge amount of work. On the other hand, if you were going to have to prep, teach, and grade that number of credits, anyway, then you're robbing your teaching time to pay for your research. Sweet.

Next post: the care and feeding of your minions.

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