Finding the Time and Resources to Support Undergraduate Research

John Mateja

In an earlier Forum on Education (FEd) Newsletter article entitled "A Time for Action, Not another Report," I discussed the need to increase the number of U.S. born students seeking undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics and astronomy (Fall 2009). As I reported in the article, the situation has reached a level of concern that our physics and astronomy societies have collectively called upon physics and astronomy departments across the country to provide ALL undergraduate physics and astronomy majors with a research experience, a move intended to interest and retain students in these disciplines.1

In this issue of the FEd Newsletter, Peter Collings, the current chair of the APS Committee on Education, has written an article, "Undergraduate Research: Faculty Scholarship and Undergraduate Education," that points to ways in which research and education can go hand-in-hand, to the benefit of both. Peter argues that a well constructed and well-thought-through plan can involve undergraduates in meaningful research AND maintain research productivity. Further, he suggests that undergraduates, who bring a naiveté to the problem, can ask questions that even lead to new insights. Today, few faculty question the value of engaging undergraduates in research. For most, the issues are time and resources, topics that this article will address.

When presenting institutes or workshops on developing successful undergraduate research programs, one of my favorite PowerPoint slides asks the following question, "How soon will (place the name of YOUR UNIVERSITY here)  increase the number of faculty by 30% to provide YOU with additional time to involve undergraduates in research?" It is intended to get a laugh from my audience and it always does. Everyone in the audience knows this is unlikely to occur and that, if you wait for this to happen, undergraduate research will likely never develop on your campus. The real questions are, "Are there actions one can take to support undergraduate research that better utilize existing resources or stimulate the creation of new resources?" and "Are there ways to provide faculty with more time to enable them to mentor undergraduate research students?"

Let's look at the resource question first. While I am certain there are other ideas, and I would encourage those who have developed alternate funding strategies to write future FEd articles on their initiatives, I have identified three interesting and successful funding strategies. These include:
  1. changing existing "scholarships" to "undergraduate research fellowships,"
  2. having students "tax" themselves to support a campus-wide research program, and
  3. creating endowed funds to support undergraduate research.

At Morehead State University and Murray State University in Kentucky, students no longer simply receive "presidential scholarships." Today they are awarded "presidential research fellowships." What is the difference? In the past, students receiving the scholarship would be given financial support, with the hope that – without little additional guidance and or mentoring – they would succeed in college. Under this system, some students did well; other students could have done better. Today, the recipients of the "research fellowships" receive the same financial benefit but, in addition, beginning in their freshman year, they now work on research projects under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Faculty who participate in this program also help students make the most out of their undergraduate experience by providing academic advising and by providing students with the guidance and support they need to make important career decisions. In the early days of the Morehead program, faculty often had to be cajoled into taking on a freshman research fellow. Today, because of high faculty demand, there is a waiting list for these students.

Another interesting model can be found in Wisconsin. At the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, the students themselves understand the value of extracurricular learning opportunities like undergraduate research and study abroad and, as such, are willing to "tax" themselves to support these activities. For at least the last five years, the student government of this ~6,000 undergraduate student campus has levied a fee on the student body that has allowed it to support an undergraduate research operating budget of $500,000 (the university provides support for the staff of the undergraduate research office). The students at UW – Eau Claire understand that if the graduates of their institution are to be competitive in today's global workforce, they need more than just a college diploma. As such, they are willing to support the kinds of programs that allow Eau Claire graduates to build strong competitive resumes. The program is valued enough that next year the Eau Claire student government is raising its support for undergraduate research to $750,000.

Finally, there are a number of universities that are now developing endowments to support their undergraduate research programs. While once considered the domain of private colleges, like the $10 million dollar endowment the president of Elon University in North Carolina is working to establish for his institution's undergraduate research program, today public universities are working to develop similar endowments. The President of SUNY – Oswego, Deborah Stanley, is in the process of establishing a $10 million dollar endowment to support a very forward-thinking undergraduate research STEM initiative at Oswego. The endowment will provide students with research experiences on the Oswego campus in their freshman or sophomore year and then provide them with a second research experience during the student's junior or senior year in a laboratory in another country. Agreements to host Oswego undergraduates have been obtained in laboratories in China, Russia, Brazil, among others.

Campuses around the country are clearly developing creative solutions to generate the resources needed to support undergraduate research. Have these campuses been as innovate in finding ways to provide faculty with additional time to allow them to mentor undergraduates?   As you will see, departments are also finding inexpensive and even no-cost ways to add time to faculty schedules.   

As Peter Collings demonstrates in his article, one of the more important realizations is that, if properly planned and executed, undergraduate research can serve a dual purpose – it can enhance learning AND increase research productivity. While this does not "increase the number of hours in a day a faculty member has," the benefit to faculty is that their undergraduate research activities can be used to simultaneously strengthen their teaching and research portfolios. What is needed to ensure that undergraduates are "effective contributors" to one's research program? As the answer to this question is clearly articulated in Peter's article, I will not elaborate here other than to say students must be engaged in research early in their undergraduate careers and they must be provided with the opportunity to remain engaged in research throughout their undergraduate years. When this happens, students' work is often of a caliber that it leads to presentations at professional society meetings and publications in disciplinary journals. When and how students participate in research is a faculty member's prerogative. Even without additional support from the institution, faculty can design their undergraduate research program in a way that maximizes the benefits of their program to both their students and themselves.

Department chairs and/or faculty can also help build an undergraduate research program. What classes are offered, when they are offered, who teaches the classes and who serves on departmental committees are typically departmental prerogatives. Departments that support undergraduate research work to:
  1. minimize the number of faculty preps in a given semester (e.g., by providing faculty with the opportunity to teach multiple sections of the same course),
  2. minimize the number of new courses faculty are asked to teach,
  3.  provide research active faculty with a least one day per week when the faculty member is not teaching a class,
  4. build undergraduate research into departmental tenure and promotion guidelines (and also encourage the inclusion of undergraduate research in university tenure and promotion guidelines),
  5. minimize the committee service for faculty who mentor undergraduate research students, and
  6. creatively award teaching credit for mentoring undergraduate research students2.
While these are clearly difficult financial times and most universities are struggling to make ends meet, there are institutions that are finding creative ways to support and enhance undergraduate research on their campuses. As undergraduate research is rapidly becoming a baseline against which academic programs are being judged, these programs are positioning themselves to become the leaders in our community. For the health of our individual programs and for the health of the physics and astronomy communities as a whole, it is incumbent upon all of us to continue to work to build robust undergraduate research programs on all of our campuses.
  1. American Physical Society's Committee on Education, Society of Physics Students, American Astronomical Society, Council on Undergraduate Research's Physics and Astronomy Division, and American Association of Physics Teachers
  2. On a growing number of campuses, students have the opportunity to sign up for one credit hour of research per semester. Departments and colleges are reluctant to reduce a faculty member's teaching load for mentoring one or two such students when the total number of credit hours produced is this small. Departments have devised a number of ways to address this problem. Some departments allow faculty to bank student credit hours until they have accumulated a total of 10 student credit hours. The concern with this approach is that it could take a faculty member up to 10 semesters (i.e. once every five years) to earn a single course release. As reported to me by Bert Holmes, a former faculty member at Lyon College, a different approach was developed at Lyon College. All student research credit hours generated during a given semester in a given department were awarded to one faculty member who was then the "faculty of record" for all student research during that semester. Using this approach, there was sufficient time generated every semester to award a faculty member with a course release. The "faculty of record" position was rotated among the research active faculty, thereby ensuring that every semester a different faculty member received release time for mentoring undergraduate research students.

John Mateja is the Director of the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity Office and the McNair Scholars Program at Murray State University. He is a Fellow and past president of the Council on Undergraduate Research and serves on the Board of Governors of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.