Sunday, June 29, 2014


Undergraduate Research, Part One

“It’s easier to collaborate dance-science than dance-dance.” -- Liz Lerman

I’m at the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) conference in Washington, D.C.  It’s devoted to faculty at colleges and universities across the country who find ways to include their undergraduate students in their own scholarly research.  And it’s a fascinating bunch.

I noticed a distinct character immediately.  The opening plenary on Saturday was held in a huge ballroom, with restricted access.  When they started shepherding people in, I heard a lot of “excuse me” and “after you,” none of it apparently sarcastic.  People were largely welcoming, and the general feel of the place was that people were just happy to be there.  At the League for Innovation or the AACC, the ratio of Alpha egos is much higher.  At APSA, there was always plenty of nametag-checking to see if you were important enough to bother talking to.  Here, people just seem happy to be able to share what they’re doing and learn from each other.

The group appears to be primarily faculty from four-year colleges, and mostly from STEM fields.  I was invited to speak on a panel of administrators on Monday to discuss ways that faculty can speak to administrators so the admins will actually hear what they’re saying.  That gave me Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday morning to do see what people are up to.

The opening plenary was by Liz Lerman, a choreographer, who discussed the research process as a form of creativity, and placed it in the context of other forms of creativity, such as dance.  In both cases, the idea is to bring something new into the world.  She focused on the productive collisions between different ways of seeing the world, such as a dance she put together based on the concept of “protein folding.”  When you bring entirely different frameworks into contact, you can generate questions like “how does the universe clean itself?”  Being clearly out of your element gives you license to ask basic questions; as she put it, you could be humble without being humiliated.  That’s part of the payoff of including undergrads in creative work; they haven’t been completely inculcated into a field yet, so they still see with fresh eyes and ask basic questions.  

Sunday morning kicked off with a speech by Muriel Howard, who is the president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.  She’s an experienced college president, and it showed; she gave a speech that managed to include a lot of potentially dispiriting information while still being basically upbeat.  The core of it was a list of the challenges that presidents and chancellors face, to give some context for how they hear the arguments that come to them.  She noted, I think correctly, the increasing trend towards centralization in many state systems, and the consequent shift in presidents’ roles from strategy and vision to implementation.  She also acknowledged the very real enrollment pressures faced by many colleges in the Northeast and Midwest, noting that “[f]or the first time, [she’s] seeing vice presidents of enrollment management become college presidents.”  In that context, faculty who are able to couch undergraduate research projects as retention and completion initiatives are more likely to garner administrative support.

The rest of the day was devoted to hearing faculty -- and in one case, their students -- discuss undergraduate research projects they’ve done.  One was a “digital humanities” class in American history led by Jeff McClurken, from the University of Mary Washington, and a colleague whose name I didn’t catch.  They had thirteen students from nine colleges around the country working on a history of American life during the First World War.  (You can see their work at  The students did archival research in their various locations, and put together a collaborative website sharing their findings.  They reported that it was far more work than a regular class, and the logistical challenges were real, but they loved what they did.  Prof. McClurken mentioned later that some of the issues arose simply from having nine different academic calendars running alongside each other; so many different Spring Breaks made coordinated discussion difficult.  It’s one of those things that you wouldn’t think about until you suddenly had to.

A set of faculty from several Maryland community colleges, along with an outreach person from UMBC, presented on ways to use UGR to encourage students to transfer to four-year schools.  I learned a whole bunch of new acronyms in that one -- REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates); NIST (Naitonal Institute of Science and Technology); and CURE (Classroom-Embedded Research Experience) seemed among the most useful -- and quickly realized that an entire discourse has developed around this stuff.  The moment that seemed familiar came when two faculty from Carroll College mentioned a wonderfully innovative, intensive two-credit summer UGR course they developed that “unfortunately doesn’t transfer.”  Yup.  If we want to see undergraduate research projects flourish in community colleges, four-year colleges will have to accept them in transfer.

After a social-science panel that didn’t particularly work, I caught a couple of lifetime achievement award speeches.  The highlight there was a challenge thrown by a chemist, Mitchell Malachowski, who declared that faculty who do research and don’t include students in its production are actively harming the learning environment of their students.  So we have a need for a labor-intensive intervention, a difficult funding climate, serious logistical challenges, and a transfer issue.  I hope the administrators on the Monday panel are smart...

Thanks for the report from the front lines. As someone heavily involved in both mentoring undergrad research and developing Arts Practice Research (from music) as part of undergrad education, this report is very timely. Much appreciated!
Of those acronyms, REU is one of the best, as it also stands for "Uncle Sam's Money."

The program officer for our NSF grant always seemed happy when we were able to get a community college student to participate in our REU. Once we had an African-American community college student in our REU. His picture ended up in a lot of our reporting materials to NSF.

I strongly suspect that many of your nearby four-year schools with NSF-funded projects that need to demonstrate a commitment to "outreach" and "broader impacts" would be happy to have your students apply for their summer research projects.
When you say don't count, what do you mean? Do you mean students don't get any credits for them (i.e. no generic credits) or that they don't count towards a major? Our own one credit and two credit research courses don't count for our major. A three credit can count once but the rest of the time research credits don't count towards the major but do count towards the total required for graduating.

One of the easiest ways is the CURE in 100 and 200 level courses. Money is already being spent on instructors and supplies. Refocus towards an inquiry based approach instead of cookbook labs. You are getting students to do research while getting credit for it that will count. They will also learn more than than the traditional cookbook approach that actually harms students. There is research showing the traditional gets students to be become more novice like in their approach to problem solving.

You need to know that there are some summer undergrad research programs that have dedicated slots for CC students. This is important because most REU programs are targeted at rising college seniors who (a) know a little bit and (b) might discover that they are or are not interested in going to graduate school next year to pursue a research career. For those REU programs, rising juniors usually need to have taken classes that are not at the CC level. The example in the comments above are the exception rather than the rule at most REU programs.

I don't get your obsession with research credits transferring. Our students don't get any credit when they are off doing a summer program at some research lab or university and it does NOT matter one bit. What they get is a really meaningful letter of recommendation and a really significant blurb on their resume. Those result in scholarships or work-study jobs after they transfer, any of which is far more valuable than a few credits on a transcript hardly anyone reads.

The only reason a research class has credits is to pay for the instructional and administrative expenses when grant funds are not available or don't cover all of the costs. Credit, and the grade, has no relation to the quality of the experience.
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