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The Council on Undergraduate Research: Enhancing the Undergraduate Research Experience at Your Institution

Beth Cunningham and Terry Oswalt

Maybe you are a new faculty member at a primarily undergraduate institution starting to build your own research program. Or maybe you have been teaching for a number of years and have some experience with undergraduates in your lab but you are interested in enhancing their experience. Maybe you want to involve undergraduates in your research program but wonder if you can offer rewarding projects for an undergraduate student. In all of these cases, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) can provide valuable resources.

The mission of CUR is to support and promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship. CUR currently has 3,000 members representing over 870 institutions in eight academic divisions. Even though CUR’s primary advocacy is in support of faculty and students at predominantly undergraduate institutions, faculty and administrators at comprehensive and research institutions are very welcome and can benefit from the services that CUR provides.

CUR was established twenty five years ago. The first project initiated was the publication of a directory on Undergraduate Research in Chemistry at Undergraduate Institutions (Private Liberal Arts Colleges) in 1979. Over the years, CUR divisions have expanded to include other natural sciences, first adding Physics/Astronomy and Biology followed by Geology, Mathematics and Computer Science, Psychology, and Engineering. Four years ago the Social Sciences division was added in recognition that undergraduate research goes beyond the natural sciences. CUR also includes an At-Large Division for grant administrators and undergraduate research program directors.

The common belief of CUR councilors and members is that research is one of the best forms of experiential teaching. To this end, CUR provides faculty development programs and helps administrators nurture, improve, and assess the research environments of their institutions. For example, CUR publishes a quarterly newsletter as well as a series of “How To” books. These are designed to share successful models and strategies for establishing and institutionalizing undergraduate research programs. CUR also provides services in support of its mission. These services include discipline-specific consultancy for departmental and institutional reviews, new faculty mentoring, and an active list-serve (CURLS) designed for members to post queries on issues related to undergraduate research, job notices, etc.

CUR serves the undergraduate research community many other ways. For example, it organizes and hosts “Posters on the Hill,” an annual poster presentation on research findings by undergraduates on Capitol Hill. It administers a competitive program of summer fellowships for undergraduate students engaged in research. The CUR Fellows Awards recognizes leaders in undergraduate research. It also sponsors frequent CUR Institutes on proposal writing, institutionalizing undergraduate research, and developing programs that maintain faculty vitality post tenure.

CUR is active in the science policy-making arena. The national headquarters are located in Washington, D.C., giving CUR a strong presence on Capital Hill. CUR continues to forge new linkages between the undergraduate research community, the federal government, and industry. CUR maintains direct communication with federal and private funding agencies and hosts the “April Dialogues,” an event that provides access to program officers at a variety of funding agencies. CUR directly reminds Congress of the importance of undergraduate by hosting the annual “Posters on the Hill.” CUR prepares position papers, participates in formal hearings, and cooperates with sister societies on various initiatives. Finally, CUR keeps its individual and institutional members abreast of the many developments and trends in science policy and funding that occurs each year.

CUR sponsors biennial national meetings. The 11th CUR National Conference will be hosted by DePauw University, June 24-27, 2006. During the national meetings, faculty actively engaging undergraduates in research and administrators who provide support present their “best practice” methods. Additionally, representatives from federal and private funding agencies are available to discuss new and existing funding opportunities. Finally, the national meeting provides informal settings to learn more about undergraduate research and share the dialog with conference participants.

Perhaps you have heard about NCUR (the National Conference on Undergraduate Research) and wonder how NCUR and CUR differ. NCUR and CUR are two separate organizations. NCUR organizes an annual conference of student presentations each spring. Students from all academic disciplines and all institutions of higher education showcase their scholarship in the form of poster presentations. The next NCUR meeting will be held at Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University on April 20-22, 2005. If you are looking for a venue for your undergraduate students to present their work, this is a great way for them to make a formal presentation as well as see what other undergraduate students across the US are doing.

CUR is a grassroots organization whose principal support comes from its dues-paying individual and institutional members. The active members, with support from the national office, provide the base through which CUR activities and programs are made possible. The Physics and Astronomy Division is one of the most active divisions. Four of CUR’s 16 past presidents have been Physics/Astronomy Councilors. Current projects being undertaken by the division include developing a smaller scale directory of undergraduate research in departments across the US and examining ways to assess the effect of undergraduate research in a more rigorous manner. Any of the Physics/Astronomy CUR councilors would be more than happy to provide helpful information to you.

We encourage you to explore the CUR website (http://www.cur.org) to learn more about our active and growing organization.

Beth Cunningham is professor of physics and associate dean of the faculty at Bucknell University. She is a member of the FEd Executive Committee, Chair of the APS Committee on Education, and a Councilor in the Physics/Astronomy division of CUR.

Terry Oswalt is professor of physics and space sicences and associate dean at Florida Institute of Technology. He is also a Councilor in the Physics/Astronomy division of CUR.